The Character Issue
Is character important? We hear so much about it, especially in election years. It’s an issue in every race these days. Politicians can’t wait to come forward and declare, even before they are asked, that they have been faithful to their wives. Politicians are eager to tell us that they never took drugs, especially since that would be breaking the law. They are less eager to answer questions are on the full range of human failings, including pre-marital sex or lying on their income tax form.
So, is character important? No, as a matter of fact, it isn’t. Character is something we’re concerned about in people we don’t like. Character is the issue you use to attack people when you don’t feel you can get away with attacking them on their actions. The character of people we like is rarely an issue.
What character flaw shall we discuss first? Adultery? Good choice. Bill Clinton has been accused of it and so has Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Is it much of a stretch to assume that the people accusing them have more on their mind than moral censure? Of course the argument is that they are only outraged by the immorality, not the politics, but can we believe that?
Dr. King has been accused of plagiarism, of being an adulterer, of being a Communist. Does any of that really matter? If you were African-American would you prefer to live in the segregated South of the 1950’s rather than be led by Dr. King? Do you think the March on Washington would have disbanded if Dr. King’s personal life was put to the vote? Try to imagine the disappointed multitudes drifting away to return to their “Coloreds Only” bathrooms and the back of the bus to await a flawless leader.
It’s probably a sign of the robustness of our society that we can even worry about Bill Clinton’s sex life. If we were at war, or at the risk of ethnic cleansing, not only wouldn’t we have time to worry about Clinton’s oral sex breaks, we’d get him the women if it would help him concentrate. We’d hate to all die because our leader was too horny to save us.
You probably don’t believe what I’ve been saying, so let’s try this one. You’re on an airplane with any holy man of your choice. This priest, minister, rabbi, guru, shaman or whatever is above reproach. Not the hint of scandal. Then the unthinkable happens, just like in the movies. The flight crew is stricken and there is no one to pilot the plane, which is cruising at 42,000 feet on auto-pilot. Things look bad but then, a miracle. On board is a pilot, and not just any pilot. He’s a commercial pilot, with thousands of miles in the very model of plane in which your life is hanging by a thread. You’re just beginning to breath easier as he walks up the aisle towards the cockpit, when your spiritual advisor stands up:
“Wait”, he yells, “I know this man! He’s from my town. He’s a notorious adulterer! He’s cheated on his wife hundreds of times. He’s an atheist, publically contemptuous of religion! This man isn’t morally fit to fly this plane. I say we don’t lower ourselves to allow this man to hold our lives in his hands.”
But wait a minute, everyone asks, if the pilot doesn’t take the controls, who will?
“There’s no need to worry,” the holy man says. “I will take the controls and we’ll all trust in God to get us down safely.”
So what would you do in that situation? Certainly you don’t want to encourage a lying, cheating, adulterous atheist by cheering him on simply for saving your life, do you? Not you, the person who thinks that character matters. Okay, so let’s be honest with ourselves. You’d slap your personal holy man into his seat so fast that his head would spin around backwards. Then you’d tie him to his chair and cover his mouth with duct tape if necessary. Then you would personally escort the lying, cheating, adulterous atheist to the cockpit and, if he so desired, you’d get him a cup of hot coffee with your own hands.
Don’t believe me? What about the last time you were on a commercial jet? Was the pilot gay or straight? Was he religious? Did he ever cheat on his income tax, or on his wife? You don’t know, but more importantly you never even thought about it until I asked. No one ever sat in an airplane seat, sweaty hands gripping the armrests thinking “Oh God, please let the pilot be a straight man in a monogamous, God-based marriage.”. All anyone, even the most air-phobic passenger, has ever cared about is that the pilot knows what he’s doing.
Every day we put out lives in the hands of people about whom we know nothing. Doctors, policeman, pilots, repairmen. We look for competence in these people, not character. If character is so important, why do we fail to investigate the people we deal with. Is the chef in your favorite restaurant a tax cheat? Is your pediatrician a good parent? Did your lawyer smoke marijuana in college? If it is simply not practical to investigate the people around us, why do we ignore the moral failings of so many famous people?
Bob Hope was a notorious adulterer, even in a business full of “show folk”. His iron clad work ethic included a 9:00 am writer’s conference every working morning. Hope would show up at 11:00 am, unless someone called for him in which case he was out of the room. The first question he would ask any new writer was whether they had an apartment. If they did, he would take their key and tell them it would be in their mailbox when they got home at midnight, but not sooner.
Babe Ruth was famous for his appetites. He would publically ask directions to the local whorehouse in any town he visited. One story goes that on a train carrying the team to a distant game Ruth suddenly bolted through the car, stark naked, pursued by an angry girlfriend with a knife. One reporter turned to another and said “It’s a good thing we didn’t see that.” Would it really have made a difference? Not as long as he was “The Sultan of Swat”.
Spencer Tracy played Father Flanagan, Clarence Darrow. Thomas Edison and a host of other beloved Americans. Yet, his decades long affair with Katherine Hepburn has propelled this married Roman Catholic into the pantheon of romantic idols with not a single mention of the word “adultery”. Of course, the excuse is that, as a Catholic, he “couldn’t get a divorce”. Everyone knows that excuse is false. In America the Church can’t stop you from getting a divorce although they could excommunicate you. However, is the church really on the side of adultery and fornication as the only alternative?
William Randolph Hearst, the thundering moral model for the newspaper magnate “Citizen Kane”, installed his lover, Marion Davies as the mistress of his castle at San Simeon. The story goes that when it was discovered that an unmarried actor and actress had spent the night together, Davies had them ejected from the estate the next morning. When they protested that she and Hearst spent every night together they received a classic response. She told them that Hearst was a married Roman Catholic who could not get a divorce to marry her, so that made it all right for them to sleep together. Since the actor and actress were both unmarried and could get married before engaging in sex, what they did was wrong was wrong.
DeWitt Wallace, the founder of the pious Reader’s Digest, was caught in an extramarital affair with his wife’s niece. We may have to go to the big chart on this one, but the niece was married to a man who was the protégé of Wallace’s right hand man. When Wallace’s wife found out about the affair, she demanded that he fire her niece’s husband, and his mentor. Wallace fired both men, although neither had done anything wrong. History does not record whether she demanded that the affair be called off.
Has Newt Gingrich’s checkered past affected his political life? No. Any troubles he has had were caused by his political strategies, not any personal failings like adultery, abandonment and divorce.
Until recently, when the numerous women started coming forward to accuse him of rape, did Bill Cosby’s belated admission of an affair and illegitimate fatherhood dethrone him from his position of “America’s Dad”?
The fact is, we can be very forgiving when we feel like it. A perfect example is Jimmy Swaggart. Here is a man caught in the act of sinning. A man who made his living dispensing moral lessons to the nation. Now, if old movies have taught us anything, Swaggart should be living out his life hanging out in a seedy cantina in some unnamed Central American country, always with a three day growth and wearing the same rumpled white suit day after day. However, despite being excommunicated by his church, the man cried his way back into his flock’s heart, and remains on the airwaves as if nothing had happened. Even in a church that preaches forgiveness, it’s a bit much.
So far we have just scratched the surface. Adultery, a crime in some places as well as a sin in most, is a relatively victimless crime. Marriages can be destroyed, but they can, at least as often, survive. What about the character of people who violate other oaths?
How about simple fornication?
Did the late Wilt Chamberlain’s alleged 20,000 sexual conquests cause him any problems? No, not as long as he was a sports legend.
What about Warren Beatty? Certainly he’s come under attack, but only when he started making movies like Reds and dabbling in Liberal politics. Before that he was just another envied Hollywood stud.
Violence is a major problem in our society, isn’t it? Well, then why did Mike Tyson, Michael Vick and Letrell Sprewell go back to work?
Drugs? Marion Barry got re-elected Mayor of Washington, DC, and George W. Bush has gotten away with promising that he hasn’t used cocaine since 1975. Meanwhile, Clinton still hasn’t come out under the shadow of admitting that he tried marijuana, although denying “inhaling”.
It is becoming increasingly obvious that competence at the job, political affiliation and, generally, what people can do for us is more important than any individual sins. So what are our real feelings about character?
Americans say they think character is important, but how to define character? If it’s adhering to social norms then slave holders were more had more character than abolitionists. If it’s standing up for what you believe is right then an honest Nazi has more character then someone who opposes them because it “seems like the right thing to do”. Is it obeying the law? Then those who enforced segregation had more character than those who practiced civil disobedience. Who had more character – Gandhi or Hitler, the calculatingly good or the sincerely evil?
We worry a great deal about the motives of the person involved, which can lead to several dilemmas. What if Dr. Livingstone was only in Africa to look for diamonds, but in that failed attempt saved thousands of lives? What if Hitler really didn’t have anything against Jews, homosexuals or the disabled? What if he only did what he did out of the true and honest belief that he was doing the right thing for his people? Does that matter? Does any of it matter?
Part of the problem is that we have always preferred the superficial to the meaningful. We’re a country that put great store in kids saying “Sir” and “Ma’am” to white people, thinking nothing of calling decent, hard working elders of color the “N Word”. Too many Americans reminisce about the good old days when men doffed their hats when the ladies arrived at the site of a lynching. Maybe it’s a sign of Americans almost complete lack of historical knowledge. How many Americans appreciate the years of seven day work weeks, company towns, cold water flats and child labor that made up the “good old days”? How many people read all the Jeremiads about how far down American culture has descended since the 60’s and understand that before then African-Americans had to use separate bathrooms and sit in the back of the bus? Do they know that in the 1950’s racists could kill black men and sit laughing in court because the police, the judge and the jurors were all white and all on their side? Who had the character then?
So what is the answer? Is it words or is it deeds? Is it the Church-going man who is faithful to his wife, and only goes away from his family to don a white hood and kill minorities? Or is it the man who puts him away, but has a woman on the side? Would you elect a President on his personal morals without asking about his politics? Would you refuse to let a loved one be treated by a famous surgeon if he was divorced?
That’s a decision every has to make for themselves, but only if they admit to themselves that the choices are not as simple as we pretend they are.