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Counting Character

May was a bad month for heroes. First there was that embarrassing disclosure about William Bennett, the former education secretary and Republican moralist-in-chief, who turned out to have been hiding a massive gambling addiction. To the delight of his detractors and mortification of his admirers, Bennett turned out to be exhibit A in his own Sunday school lesson on the importance of character and self-discipline in building a virtuous citizenry. Then, days later, came the disclosure in a new biography that the late John F. Kennedy was carrying on an affair with a White House intern. Our revered, martyred ex-president, an iconic figure across the generations, turns out to have been unfit for the presidency, at least by the standards our leaders have been touting lately. It all seems terribly dispiriting.

But the problem is not our leaders. It’s in our yardsticks. We have allowed ourselves to be led around the nose for decades by charlatans who have been selling us snake oil. An entire generation of Americans has been reared on the notion that “character” — meaning personal probity, sexual or otherwise — is the essential measure of political leadership. The result — entirely intentional — has been to distract voters from the essential question of where our leaders intend to lead us.

Republicans have understood for decades that if they had to run on their policies, they would lose. Instead they ran on the Democrats’ supposed personal shortcomings. The saddest part of it all is that we bought the message, even after the messengers — Newt Gingrich, Henry Hyde, Robert Livingston and now Bill Bennett — turned out to be as flawed as the Democrats they were vilifying.

The business of politics is governing: raising and spending taxes, keeping public order, caring for the poor and defending our borders. Our greatest presidents were measured by how they conducted the public’s business, not how they conducted their private lives.

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