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Does Presidential Character Count?

Gregory Koukl

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Is the President merely a hireling, a mere contractor, a mechanic who keeps the economy running smoothly? Or is he an ambassador, a figurehead and a role model?

I want to make a quick reflection about what's been happening in Washington without getting into all the tawdry details. The details aren't as important as the ideas, in this case, the idea that it doesn't matter what the president's private life is like, as long as he does his job.

I think the answer is bound up in another question: "Is the president simply a mechanic in foreign policy and domestic concerns? Is he merely somebody who gets a task done? Do we just hire him as a contractor, so to speak?"

Usually when we hire a tradesman to fix our house, we don't care much about his personal morality. All that matters to us is that he can get the job done. Is that the way we view our president? Is he simply a mechanic, a contractor, a hired gun, of sorts? Or is he something more?

Now, you might not care about the private ethics of your contractor, though you may. You might be careful about the kind of person you choose for those big jobs. Even contractors should be honest, one might argue, that dishonesty or immorality in one area of life might result in dishonesty and immorality in other areas of life. But one could argue that a contractor is valuable because he builds well and not because he lives well, that doing the task is the only thing that matters.

Would you have the same attitude, though, about somebody who was to be a public spokesperson for you or your family, somebody that was going in your name? Would you care about the ethics of someone who was speaking to your children, or planning your future, laying the foundation for things that would deeply effect you personally?

That's different, it seems to me, because you're not just talking about a contractor. You're not just talking about somebody who will get a specific job done. You're talking about a representative, an ambassador, someone who will represent you in a respectable way. You're talking about someone who is planning your future. You're talking about a role model, aren't you?

Those who say it's enough that the president just does his job seem to be suggesting that we view the office of president of the United States as a contractual office, in which the president is simply a mechanic in certain areas-- domestic policy, foreign affairs, the economy, that kind of thing-- and we're just hiring him to do a job.

My question is this: Is the top executive in this country really just filling the role of a contractor? Or does that office also include the role of ambassador, figurehead, or role model. Is he just a paid worker or is he a symbol of everything we stand for as a country?

Here's another way of putting it: Is our president a leader, or is he just a sophisticated drone, a worker bee? If he's a leader, it seems to me that leadership entails more than simply working efficiently at a job.

With regard to the question of whether the president should be a role model, some have said, "Listen, it isn't the president's job to be a role model to my children. That's my job." Well, I agree with half of that-- the second half.

It's a father's and mother's job to be role models for their children, true enough. Anyone who thinks they can abrogate their responsibility and expect civic leaders to fill that role is sadly mistaken. As Dennis Prager once said, "What happens in your house is more important than what happens in the White House." That's a profound and insightful comment.

However, that doesn't mean that what happens in the White House is unimportant. Even though we believe it's our job to be the role model for our children, that a government figure shouldn't substitute , do we really want to say that public figures like the president shouldn't supplement the parents' job as role models?

Let's face it. Sometimes the parents aren't good role models. Sometimes the public figures are all we have. But even if the parents are good role models, isn't it great that the parents can say, "I follow this standard. I am a man or woman of character just like the leadership of our country." Do we really want to say that it doesn't matter what your character is like when you're in a role of visible leadership? Do we really want to say that we have no expectation that our public figures live noble and virtuous lives, as models of respectability?

Yes, Dad, your job is to be a role model to your children. By the way, that will happen, one way or another. You will be a role model, whether for good or for ill.

The same is true about people in public office. They will be role models, for good or for ill. That's just the way it is. We ought to be looking to our public figures to supplement the job parents have in training their children and being good role models themselves, not making their jobs harder.

The president is not just as a drone, not just as a worker bee, not just as a mechanic, a contractor in domestic and foreign policy. He is an ambassador for us, a representative of the United States, a figurehead, a role model, for good or for ill. That's why he should be an example not just administrative excellence--a qualified contractor--but of moral excellence as well.

 ©2002 Gregory Koukl

Our Country..Our Children