Character' Vanishes From Public Discourse
Published on Wednesday, October 12, 2005 by the Miami Herald
Character' Vanishes From Public Discourse
by Robert Steinback
 

So why isn't character on the table this time?

Character, we were all so piously told seven years ago, was what elevated Bill Clinton's lie about an extramarital dalliance to an issue of national gravity and justified his impeachment. It was a lie that, to those of us who were not hyperventilating with rage, seemed trivial compared to matters concerning the ship of state, even if it was a lie told under oath in a trumped-up civil trial.

No, no, no, we were scolded; it goes to the character of the man. If you can't rely on a leader to confess before the entire ogling world that he dropped his pants for the wrong woman, how could you trust anything he said? Our children would abandon all respect for honesty, integrity and propriety, using the excuse, ``Well, the president did it. Why can't I?''

These dire predictions of social anarchy struck me as absurdly exaggerated, but the standard was set. Or so we thought.

In rode a new administration and party promising to raise the bar on character. As I see it, they've splintered that bar into toothpicks.

And yet, isn't it curious how in the public discourse today one rarely hears references to character as a material issue with respect to political leadership? If an extramarital affair was proof of a vacant character, wouldn't questionable actions that actually affect people -- soldiers, covert agents, Congress, storm victims and the like -- be exponentially more serious?

Apparently not. The word from the character crowd today is that we mustn't involve ourselves in the ''blame game.'' We're told that we must wait until people are actually found guilty at trial before we dare venture an opinion on whether their actions were unseemly.

No one fired

We're told that we must wait for an investigator's report to know if anyone in the White House broke the law by leaking a covert CIA operative's name to the press -- even though the public already knows the operative's name and the two senior administration officials who did it. We're told not to question the character of the man who assured us that anyone found to be involved in the matter would no longer be part of the administration -- yet has fired no one.

We're told that associations with known sleazeballs such as alleged shakedown artist Jack Abramoff aren't really suspicious unless, presumably, videotapes of illicit cash being stuffed into politicians' jacket pockets are uncovered. We're told the deliberate concealment from Congress of the true cost of the Medicare bill was just harmless politics as usual.

We're told that intentional efforts to manipulate public opinion with undisclosed payments to talk show hosts, a White House-planted phony reporter (who ran a gay escort service on the side; what would the Clintonphobes have made of that seven years ago?) and actors posing as genuine TV news reporters in what amounted to taxpayer-supported propaganda pieces -- deeds the General Accountability Office has called out-and-out illegal -- was just a little enthusiastic advocacy.

We're told that hiring incompetent cronies to run an agency charged with preparing for and responding to disasters -- well, no one has tried to defend that one, though the usual suspects have tried mightily to shift the blame.

We're told that there's nothing odd about the president nominating yet another close crony -- his own counsel -- to the Supreme Court, and then calling her the most qualified candidate for the position.

We hear excuses for a top party figure who thinks black babies are criminally inclined at the moment of birth, and mostly silence regarding an influential party supporter who openly advocates assassinating a democratically elected foreign leader.

We're told that profoundly misleading statements by leaders we implicitly trust and that caused Congress and the nation to support the invasion of another country, shouldn't be considered lies because, well, they haven't admitted they were lies. We're told it's immaterial that but for those inaccurate statements, the public, and possibly even Congress, might not have supported the war campaign.

We've been told there is nothing inconsistent about the fact that the administration has said the Mission was Accomplished six weeks after invading Iraq; later, that the insurgency was in its final throes, and still later, that it might take as long as 12 years to quell the insurgency. And that worldwide terrorism was on the decline when it wasn't, that Iraqi soldiers were rapidly being trained to take over security roles when they weren't, and that the capture of Hussein, the drafting of a constitution and elections would ease the unrest, when they didn't.

Fair play and honesty

And yet, none of this has stirred the old ''character'' crowd to comment. Character, as I understood its usage seven years ago, referred to those qualities that went beyond minimum expectations; to qualities that spoke to virtues you're supposed to manifest even when no one is watching; to what you should and shouldn't do whether or not there were tangible consequences, and not just what you could get away with. Character referred to your willingness to play fair, be honest and be forthright -- or so I thought.

Evidently, character is only an issue when the other side's is in question. Is hypocrisy also an element of character?

© 2005 Miami Herald

###