The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - By Suzanne Fields

ep­u­ta­tion is the shadow,” Abra­ham Lin­coln said, “and char­ac­ter is the tree.”

Lin­coln, as he al­ways did, got straight to the point with an earthy homily. He un­der­stood that char­ac­ter is more than rep­u­ta­tion. Rep­u­ta­tion is what we want oth­ers to see. If we’re lucky Lin­coln’s tree is a hick­ory, hard and tough, un­bend­ing in the teeth of the gale, im­pos­si­ble to move, and dif­fi­cult to break.

If we’re not so lucky, the tree will be a wil­low, grace­ful and lovely to look at, and al­ways ea­ger to bend to what­ever wind that blows. Rep­u­ta­tion can be faked, in pol­i­tics by the arts of clever im­age-mak­ers. Char­ac­ter can’t be faked be­cause it’s who we are when no one is watch­ing. Wel­come to Cam­paign ’16.

Vul­gar­ity and abu­sive blue lan­guage isn’t ev­ery­thing, but it pro­vides an in­sight into who a man or a wo­man ac­tu­ally is when no one is watch­ing. Lies are even more re­veal­ing. Hil­lary Clin­ton has earned, if that is the word, a rep­u­ta­tion for ly­ing about just about ev­ery­thing. That’s the shadow across her char­ac­ter.

Don­ald Trump’s gross-out lan­guage in de­scrib­ing his sex­ual spec­u­la­tions about women, though it was more than a decade ago and he says those boasts no longer por­tray the man he is now, give us more than a hint to his char­ac­ter — who he is when no one is look­ing. He had the mis­for­tune of say­ing some of these things when some­one was not ac­tu­ally look­ing, but lis­ten­ing with a tape recorder.

We don’t have Hil­lary on tape, not yet, but we do have cred­i­ble wit­nesses, in­clud­ing sev­eral of the Se­cret Ser­vice agents as­signed to what agents re­gard as “the worst duty in the ser­vice,” guarding her life. They tell of vul­gar lan­guage that might put the Don­ald to shame and mis­treat­ment of ser­vants, which a wo­man of char­ac­ter would re­gard as un­for­giv­able.

Sex, lies and video­tape have de­fined this pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, but there’s more than that for anyone in­ter­ested enough to take a close look at in­ti­ma­tions of char­ac­ter. Both Don­ald Trump and Hil­lary Clin­ton have laid out im­por­tant poli­cies, the things the vot­ers could ex­pect them to do if elected. These poli­cies — taxes, de­fense, the waves of im­mi­grants of largely un­known prove­nance who are swamp­ing both the United States and Europe — can be mea­sured against Hil­lary’s pro­fessed dream of higher taxes, ex­panded govern­ment spend­ing and “open bor­ders” to in­vite an un­lim­ited num­ber of refugees from the mis­er­able places of the world. But the Don­ald’s vul­gar­ity has put him beyond the pale for many vot­ers, par­tic­u­larly women. Hil­lary has gone largely un­ex­am­ined in the main­stream me­dia, so called.

The Wik­iLeaks dis­clo­sures, which the main­stream me­dia res­o­lutely refuse to cover in any telling de­tail, re­veal the depth of Hil­lary’s con­tempt for the public. She boasts that what­ever she says is not nec­es­sar­ily true.

“You need both a public and a pri­vate po­si­tion,” she told a fam­ily-hous­ing group last year. Only she knows when she’s telling the truth and when she’s telling some­thing that’s not the truth. There’s a con­ve­nient truth and an in­con­ve­nient truth, and only Hil­lary needs to know the dif­fer­ence. She has earned a rep­u­ta­tion, even among many of her friends and sup­port­ers, for be­ing un­trust­wor­thy. Some might say this re­flects a fatal lack of char­ac­ter.

Char­ac­ter, in any­body’s def­i­ni­tion, is de­ter­mined by how we re­spond to events and circumstances, par­tic­u­larly when things go wrong — for some­thing as triv­ial as a ser­vant bring­ing in a wrong dish, or some­thing far more im­por­tant, such as play­ing loose with the na­tion’s se­cu­rity se­crets, and then ly­ing about it. “When push comes to shove,” says Ju­lian Zelizer, a pro­fes­sor of his­tory at Prince­ton who has writ­ten ex­ten­sively about pres­i­den­tial char­ac­ter, “a candidate’s char­ac­ter might be the most im­por­tant fac­tor guid­ing how he or she will make de­ci­sions and run the White House.”

The late James David Bar­ber was a young pro­fes­sor at Duke when he wrote the book, “The Pres­i­den­tial Char­ac­ter,” in 1972. The book has been re­garded as im­por­tant ever since. He ar­gued that char­ac­ter, not quite a syn­onym for per­son­al­ity, is clearly the most im­por­tant thing to know about a candidate. Char­ac­ter is the way a pres­i­dent ori­ents him­self to­ward life, “not for the mo­ment, but en­dur­ingly.”

Char­ac­ter, he wrote, “is forged in child­hood, grow­ing out of the child’s experiments in re­lat­ing to par­ents, broth­ers and sis­ters and peers in play and in school, as well as to his own body and ob­jects around it. Through these early ex­pe­ri­ences, the child and thus the man – or wo­man-to-be – ar­rives at a deep and pri­vate de­ter­mi­na­tion of what he or she is fun­da­men­tally worth.” The rest of us have to choose, wisely if we can, when we se­lect the pres­i­dent on whom our hopes and fears, through the years fraught with peril and pos­si­bil­ity, ul­ti­mately de­pend. Suzanne Fields is a colum­nist for The Wash­ing­ton Times and is na­tion­ally syn­di­cated.


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