Author of Saving Democracy!, Wasted Genius and Common Genius

Character Counts!

I recently had lunch with a couple whose company my wife and I have enjoyed for many years even though we are poles apart on most political and social issues. When the conversation got to current events, they became quite agitated and recounted a fear that had engulfed them the night before when watching the evening news; and the rapidly falling favorability rating of President Obama over the on-going health care debacle. It wasn’t the problem itself that disturbed them, but their reaction and the dark question that immediately came into their minds: “What’s to stop the administration from choreographing some major disaster to avert the news away from ObamaCare?” They had even imagined that planting a car bomb in Times Square might conceivably be contemplated!

I suggested that such a faked act of terrorism would be a little beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings; that it would be much safer and easier to engineer another foreign policy crisis, which would accomplish the same result. I went on to explain a similar conspiracy theory of my own: how a few months ago, when the IRS scandals, the Benghazi cover-up, and the NSA surveillance programs were damaging the administration’s image, the President had successfully diverted the news coverage by threatening to send some cruise missiles into Syria. The timing of that threat raised the question, “Why Now?” We had stood by for two years while atrocities were committed by both Assad’s regime and their opponents. We didn’t even know which side was our enemy! Now that threat by Obama had met with worldwide opposition, and forced an awkward retreat by the administration, but the scandals were driven from the headlines.

The alarming thing about such suspicions for my friends, lifelong Democrats that they were, was that such doubts concerning the integrity of our leaders was a new fear, one they had never entertained before: What has happened to America when we have to doubt the honesty of our leaders? How can we actually believe we have elected people who would manufacture crises, situations where innocent lives could be lost, billions spent, merely to “manage” the news and maintain their popularity rankings? But the evidence is clear–just look at Wall Street, with the huge collapse, bailouts, and how as a result the banks got bigger, richer, and no one went to jail; and the Treasury Department is still run by Goldman Sachs executives, covering for their cronies in the biggest financial institutions in the land! That coordinated rip-off, enriching the wealthiest one tenth of 1%, is the biggest scandal of the century, and the perps are still running the nation’s finances.

The clear message of all this is that Character Counts! In the 1990’s the media and political elites argued that what counts is good intentions and management ability, not personal pecadillos, or moral and ethical lapses. The Clinton presidency was defended, its main character admired, and falsehoods over-looked. And that is still the case today. We can only lament the new mentality, as James P. Owen does in Cowboy Ethics: “Imagine what could happen if Wall Street firms looked back to a simpler time when right and wrong were as clear as black and white?” Of course that’s a false hope as long as we elect leaders who are in bed with those they regulate. I am not sure how to reverse the downward spiral, but some advice from the past illustrates the need for a correction in our attitudes and behavior:

Thomas Jefferson: “No government can continue good but under the control of the people; and … their minds are to be informed by education what is right and what wrong; to be encouraged in habits of virtue and to be deterred from those of vice… These are the inculcations necessary to render the people a sure basis for the structure and order of government.”

John Adams: “Our government is made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Stanford University professor William Damon: “Our disregard of civic and moral virtue as an educational priority is having a tangible effect on the attitudes, understanding and behavior of large portions of the youth population in the United States today.”

Historians have searched for explanations for the Rise and Fall of nations, but certainly widespread corruption at the top is one of the best explanations for Decline. The corrupt attitudes trickle down, infecting the populace, which loses its pride, its sense of community, and its willingness to contribute to shared goals. Clearly, civilizations that lose their underlying values, encourage gambling and deceit, and disdain virtue will wither and die.