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John Wooden, basketball l egend, touted the importance of the quality of "character." Photo: Robert Laberge/Getty Images
John Wooden, basketball legend, touted the importance of the quality of "character". Photo: Robert Laberge/Getty Images

For our politicians, character matters

The “moral excellence” of our leaders defines the quality of our democracy.

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May 27th, 2022

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In our cover story this week on pg. 12, Senator Bob Casey talks about his career path, and his priorities as a legislator at a critical time in our nation’s history.

One of his statements which stands out for its novelty, coming from the mouth of a career politician, and especially a male politician, is his observation that “when you’re home, you should be at home...spending as much time as possible engaging with your children.”

“Even as a public official, you can’t just absolve yourself of that responsibility to be a good parent,” Casey told AL DÍA reporter Michelle Myers in his visit to the newsroom on Oct. 21.

Casey went on to link that care and attention in one’s private life to a concept that can seem almost unheard of in the Trump era of politics—the importance of the twin qualities of integrity and character.

“I know it’ll offend some people when I say this, but character matters,” Casey said.

That assertion presupposes a resistance to the idea that character does, in fact, matter for public officials. Being someone with “family values” and with some sense of “morality” has usually been an essential part of candidates’ campaigns; but what that means and how it translates into the political sphere is up for debate.

As defined by Merriam Webster, character as Casey is using the word refers to “moral excellence and firmness.” (An aside, but it can’t help but be noted that the example phrase is “a man of sound character,” italics ours—an essay for another day.)

But what does character look like in a politician? Casey indicated it has to do with “integrity,” a sense of investment and oneness in your personal and professional lives. It has to do with the kind of person you are away from the spotlight, behind closed doors. Character, the basketball legend John Wooden said, is what you do when no one is watching. It seems that Casey, who also coached basketball, albeit for a team of middle schoolers and not an NCAA dynasty, would agree.

Joan Didion put it this way, in her iconic though not quite timeless (some of her analogies deserve critique) 1961 essay, “On Self-Respect”: “Nonetheless, character—the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life—is the source from which self-respect springs.”

The willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life, one’s own actions: an elusive yet powerful antidote to the rhetoric of blame that has become presidential precedent. 

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