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I got into my first fight in third grade. It was short but decisive: I told Donny I like-liked Emily, knowing he did too. He tried to kick me, but I grabbed his foot and tossed him to the ground. My teacher split us up and exiled me to the wall — nose-to-brick — for the rest of recess. I’ll never forget what she said: “This isn’t like you, Gill.”

My teacher knew I wasn’t a fighter — I was just that nerd who read “The Hobbit” in homeroom. My teacher’s comment showed that fighting was “out of char­acter” for me. People repeat this phrase so often it has almost become bankrupt, but this cliché reveals some­thing true about people, namely, that habits form char­acter. Those who fight become fighters; those who flee become cowards. That’s why mothers force their children to blab “thank you” on all occa­sions. If they fake it long enough, they may just be polite.

This dis­cussion about char­acter and action sug­gests a model for judging a politician for past mis­takes: Cit­izens should hold her accountable pri­marily for her char­acter. She formed this char­acter through decades of habitual action. Not all her actions align with her char­acter; some mis­takes reflect nothing more than brief detours on the journey to who she is today. All make mis­takes, but the best people rec­ognize these as mis­takes, repent, and get better. The politician ought to be judged by who she is, not by mis­takes cor­rected long ago. Her char­acter expresses this.
For­giveness itself depends on this dis­tinction between char­acter and action. Last year, I was losing an argument with a friend. It got bad. I attacked his char­acter. It was one of those lines that gave rise to the awkward adjective, “cringe­worthy,” a line that urges everyone to get out of earshot ASAP. I went to sleep without apol­o­gizing but knowing with cer­tainty that I was in the wrong.

But he forgave me the next day, because our friendship depends not on single actions and anom­alies but on our habits. In other words, our friendship sur­vived because of its foun­dation in our char­acters. Readers can probably think of similar examples in their own lives. Per­sonal examples show that a person is irre­ducible to her par­ticular actions, which makes for­giveness pos­sible. We don’t apol­ogize for being the way we are; we apol­ogize for par­ticular harmful actions. In seeking for­giveness, we express sorrow and rec­ognize that mis­takes do not align with who we are or who we want to be. We seek for­giveness so that these actions do not become part of our char­acter, after which we will cease to feel remorse or seek for­giveness.

Yet the problem with my approach to judging politi­cians is that people cannot see a state of char­acter; they can see only actions. These actions reveal char­acter — an inward state — to us on the outside. In action, a man shows his mod­er­ation or lack thereof. Habitual actions illus­trate char­acter, but so do actions com­mitted just once: one murder gives strong evi­dence of a corrupt char­acter. This doesn’t mean that a mur­derer can’t find redemption, but he probably isn’t worthy of political trust anymore.

With this in mind, we should use all actions com­mitted by a politician as a means for judging her char­acter. Each and every mistake counts against the strength of her char­acter; every cor­rection of these mis­takes counts in its favor. Some mis­takes like rape or murder demon­strate cor­ruption that deserves no position of power. But other mis­takes shouldn’t result in con­dem­nation. Maybe a politician once drank too much and threw a punch in college. That’s con­cerning, but it’s not damning unless a pattern emerges.

My third-grade teacher saw a pattern. She saw a kid who wasn’t a fighter; she saw a kid who just made a mistake. Her cor­rection was important because, without it, I might have become a fighter or a bully. I made a mistake, but I hope people won’t judge me only by that mistake made 13 years ago.

In the same way, we ought to judge a politician pri­marily for her char­acter. Mis­takes are essential to deter­mining that char­acter. But they should hardly have the last word.

  • Jen­nifer Melfi

    Since when has Hillsdale become the champion of the sub­jective? “It’s not what he did, it’s what he meant! Look at the chance in char­acter” What a load of garbage. Judge people based on what they do. Period. I believe this is the neg­ative impact of Hillsdale’s choices about who they recruit and how they rep­resent them­selves. This was a weak argument for a weak concept.