Commentary Magazine


A Question of Character

At a time when many people are saying Barack Obama’s past associations with radical figures doesn’t matter — and even that it shouldn’t matter – it’s worth considering the opposite argument.

From the ancient Greeks to the founding fathers, many of our best political minds believed character in our leaders matters. It doesn’t matter more than anything else, and character is itself a complicated thing. People can have strong character in some respects and weak character in others. People can demonstrate battlefield valor, for example, yet show cruelty to those over whom they have power. They can speak unpleasant truths when there is a high cost to doing so and betray their spouses. Individuals can demonstrate admirable loyalty to their friends and still lie to the public, or work for peace and yet violate the laws of our land.

Still, in our wiser moments, we have always understood that character, broadly defined, is important to possess for those in high public office, in part because it tells us whether our leaders warrant our trust, whether their word is dependable, and whether they are responsible. And one of the best indicators of character is the people with whom you associate. This is basic, elementary-school level common sense. The odds are your parents wanted you to hang around with the “right” crowd instead of the wrong crowd because if you hung around with the latter it meant its members would be a bad influence on you, it would reflect poorly on you, and you’d probably end up getting into trouble.

What applies to 10-year-olds also applies to presidential candidates.

Over the years, Barack Obama hung around with some pretty disturbing characters, and what we’re talking about aren’t isolated incidents. It has happened with a slew of people on a range of issues. He has connected himself with domestic terrorists (William Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn), with an anti-American and racist minister (Jeremiah Wright), and with corrupt people (Antoin “Tony” Rezko) and organizations (ACORN). What we see, then, is a pattern.

Will it be something that will manifest itself if Obama is elected President? It’s impossible to know for sure, and we can hope it wouldn’t be the case. But it might.

The concern is not that Obama will invite domestic terrorists to the White House for signing ceremonies or private lunches; rather, it is that we know enough about Obama to say that his enormous personal ambition has clouded his judgment over the years. He looks to be a man who will do disquieting things in order to climb the ladder of political success; when he was in Hyde Park, the rungs on that ladder included Mr. Ayers and the Reverend Wright. This kind of trait — soaring ambition trumping sound judgment — can manifest itself in very problematic ways, especially when you occupy the most powerful office in the world.

For those who say that these associations don’t matter, that they’re “distractions” from the more urgent problems of our time and an example of “Swift-boating,” consider this: if John McCain had sat in the pew of a pastor who was a white supremacist and launched his political career at the home of, and developed a working relationship with, a man who bombed abortion clinics or black churches and, for good measure, was unrepentant about it, McCain’s political career would be (rightly) over, and he would be (rightly) ostracized.

A political reference point may be helpful here. Senator Trent Lott was hounded out of his post as Majority Leader because of a few inappropriate comments — made in bad taste but in jest — at Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday party. Much of the media and the political class were outraged. Yet we have a case in which Obama has had close, intimate relations with some really unsavory folks, and we’re told it doesn’t matter one bit.

It’s true enough that the McCain campaign has never explained in a sustained, adequate way why these radical associations matter; that McCain, for reasons that are hard to fathom, has declared the Reverend Jeremiah Wright is off limits; and that the MSM is so deeply wed to Obama’s victory that they have done all they can to turn the issue of Obama’s radical associations into a problem for John McCain rather than Barack Obama. And so it’s quite possible that raising Obama’s radical associations in the last 20 days won’t be politically effective and may even be politically counterproductive, given the economic crisis we’re facing and the ham-handed way it’s been handled so far. Many Americans certainly seems to be of the mind that Obama’s associations with Ayers and Wright and all the rest don’t matter.

I get all that. But some of us believe there is a responsibility to make this case in a calm, responsible, factual way. We believe it’s important to explain why Obama’s radical associations bear on the question of his character, and why Obama’s character bears on the question of electing our next President. This issue shouldn’t, by itself, be dispositive. Nor should it be the only, or even the most important, issue in the campaign. Nor is it fair to say that Obama’s character can be understood only through the prism of his associations. But to evoke eye-rolling, dismissive reactions in response to simply raising the issue is an effort to sideline a legitimate topic.

The time-honored truth is that character matters in leaders. Sometimes people forget that lesson – and when they do, it’s appropriate to remind them. And whether the country understands it or not, and whether voters think it’s a big deal or not, integrity and associations matter.

If Barack Obama is elected President, sooner or later people will realize this applies to him as well. It’s only right to ask the relevant questions in advance of this election — and despite the ridicule being dished out by the acolytes and cheerleaders of Senator Obama, it’s not too much to ask Obama to explain his relationship over the years with people who have a disturbing history of violence, hatred for America, and corruption.

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