BUT WHAT ABOUT CHARACTER?
This is a defining moment...in our country, in our major institutions, in our corporations... and certainly in our political parties. Will we move forward into an uncertain future (what future was ever "certain?") fueled by a powerful vision, by our recommitment to living up to our highest possible potential - as individuals and as a country - and a renewed spirit that thrives on what's hard, not what's easy. Or, will we retreat - "manage our expectations," play safe...and play small. We get to decide.
Sometimes it takes a crisis - an economic crisis, a military crisis, a crisis of confidence, a crisis of leadership - for us as individuals or institutions - to decide who we are, what we stand for at the core, what we believe in...for us to act.
But deciding isn’t easy. It’s always easier not to. To let it go for a while, wait to see what happens, wait 'til next time around, wait for it to be easier. Deciding takes guts. After all, you could be wrong. You could look bad. You might even lose - lose face, lose your popularity, lose your job, lose your constituents.
Deciding takes character. It takes character to do what is right when it may cost more than you are willing to pay. I remember a crisis of sorts in my early days at Avon when for a moment, doing the right thing hung in the balance between cost...and benefit. We’d launched a baby powder product called “Puff the Magic Dragon.” It was adorable, cuddly and puffed sweet-smelling powder out of its nostrils. But there was one problem: We had reports that “Puff” caused coughing in babies and young children. “We need to recall it,” a young, new marketing person said. “But it hasn’t hurt anyone, really,” the product marketing director responded, understandably upset at the significant cost of a recall. “And anyway, on the package we say 'Keep out of the reach of babies and young children,'" he added. All that was true. “But what baby doesn’t want to squeeze ‘Puff?’” the newbie said, “We’ve got to recall it. It’s the right thing to do.” She had the courage to speak up - and disagree - with her boss. We recalled the product. We all felt good. And the marketing director said later to his new recruit, “Thanks for reminding us of who we are.”
So what does this have to do with the election? Everything. In the end, leadership is about character. Not style. Not “looking presidential.” Not who smirks or smiles the least, not who can tell the best stories about how much he cares and what a nice guy he is and, not who spins the truth the most convincingly. (Ever notice how, if someone, even you, repeats something over and over - even if it’s not exactly true - you actually begin to believe it? Never a good thing..)
JFK wrote a book called “Profiles in Courage” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1957, among other prestigious awards. It contains short biographies describing acts of bravery and integrity by eight United States Senators who crossed party lines and/or defied the opinions of their constituents to do what they felt was right - and as a result, suffered severe criticism and the loss of popularity. For example, Kennedy writes about Edmond Ross from Kansas who voted for acquittal in the Andrew Jackson impeachment trial. As a result of Ross’ vote and the votes of six other Republicans, Democrat Johnson’s presidency was saved - and the stature of the office was preserved. Kennedy also writes about Senator Robert A. Taft from Ohio, who criticized the Nuremberg Trials for trying Nazi war criminals under an ex post facto law. The criticism against Taft was so severe that it cost him the Republican nomination for President in 1948. This might be a good time to read - or reread Kennedy’s book.
So as we weigh the pros and cons of our votes three weeks from now, and as we watch the debate Tuesday night, perhaps, at least for a moment, we should put aside the questions of who looks better, sounds better, moves his hands better and tells better stories - and ask, “Which guy has character? Who will, when it gets really tough, when it gets really hard, remind us of who we are?” We're voting after all. We’re deciding - and we're putting our names on it. We’d better get it right.
Lincoln said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
And FDR wrote, “A vote is like a rifle; its usefulness depends upon the character of its user.”
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