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When character counts in choosing a president

'Private sins' usually matter far less than 'public virtues' in presidents. Whether in Iowa or New Hampshire, voters must weigh how Romney, Gingrich, or any other candidate has behaved in public life. Look for the qualities of courage, self-control, wisdom, and justice.

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The former House speaker is a case study of the difference between intelligence and practical wisdom. As Tom Stoppard once wrote, "You can persuade a man to believe almost anything provided he is clever enough, but it is much more difficult to persuade someone less clever."

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Romney is less clever and more prudent than Gingrich. A Romney administration would probably avoid unworkable proposals. The defect of this virtue could be a lack of creativity: There wouldn't be many wild ideas, but there might not be many innovative ones either.

Justice is about giving everyone what he or she is due. When public figures practice justice, they keep commitments to others and honor their obligations to the offices they hold.

Gingrich has had trouble in this area as well. As speaker, he became notorious among other lawmakers for pie-crust promises: easily made, easily broken. Carelessness about his ethical duties triggered an investigation that ended in his payment of a $300,000 settlement to the House ethics committee.

Romney's career has been free of such missteps, but his critics lodge another kind of charge: He made business decisions that cost many ordinary workers their jobs. His supporters reply that the layoffs were unavoidable and that he created many jobs.

The careers of Romney and Gingrich will continue to provoke debate and discussion – as well they should. We are not just picking a bundle of issue statements; we're hiring an individual to do complicated work under unpredictable conditions.

And since our very lives may depend on that person's performance, we're entitled to ask some probing questions. As journalist Jeff Greenfield once said, is there anything you don't want to know about someone who's asking you for the power to blow up the world?

John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California and coauthor of "American Government and Politics: Deliberation, Democracy, and Citizenship."


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