Character Is the Core Of Good Leadership

I SEEM to be stuck on the subject of character, particularly the character of presidents and those aspiring to the presidency. There's now a new book - ''Character Above All'' - that examines the relationship between the character of the 10 presidents preceding Bill Clinton and the leadership they provided.

I think it is a great book, perhaps because the highly regarded observers of the political scene who supplied these 10 essays - scholars like Doris Kearns Goodwin, who has written on Franklin D. Roosevelt, and David McCullough, who has provided analysis of Harry Truman - support my own beliefs: Good character is essential in the presidency.

What is character? Euripides defined it as ''a stamp of good repute on a person.'' My Webster's Dictionary defines it as ''moral excellence and firmness,'' as in ''a man of sound character.''

It's clear to me from this book that the voters have, for the most part, done a good job over much of this century of selecting presidents who are men of character. FDR, Dwight Eisenhower, Truman, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush measure up to that standard.

RICHARD NIXON'S character was badly flawed and so was his presidency: Watergate tells it all. Lyndon Johnson was not a man of character, either. He, like Nixon, simply didn't tell the truth to the American people, particularly about the Vietnam War.

John F. Kennedy's short stay in the presidency has been hailed by some historians. But his high-risk womanizing, disclosed in recent years, casts a shadow over his record. Furthermore, relatively new disclosures have shown that Kennedy's so-called biggest triumph - when he was supposed to have stood up to the Russians during the Cuban missile crisis - was not quite the heroic act that Kennedy and others made it out to be at the time.

Only years later have we learned that it was not, as portrayed by JFK and his people, ''Kennedy standing eyeball to eyeball with Khrushchev, with Khrushchev finally blinking.'' Instead, we now know that Kennedy told Nikita Khrushchev that if Khrushchev would pull back from Cuba, Kennedy would yank our Jupiter missiles out of Turkey and, in addition, would promise never to invade Castro's Caribbean island.

Kennedy's essayist, Richard Reeves, doesn't write about that aspect of the missile crisis. But he faults Kennedy for his womanizing and for getting us into the Vietnam War because ''[Kennedy] felt he had to confront the Soviets someplace because he didn't want Khrushchev to think he was weak.''

SOMETIMES readers will flatter this old-timer by asking me how I make up my mind on how to vote for president. I tell them that I put partisanship down very low in making my decision. Indeed, I inform them that I am registered as an independent, which, I hope, is reflected in what I write about the world of politics.

Then I say that both my parents informed me very early in my life that they ''always voted for the man'' for president - not for party. By that, they said, they meant they were looking for a president who ''had character,'' who was strong, and honest, and moral.

My parents described themselves as ''Lincoln Republicans.'' My mother's father as a young man had known Lincoln. Dad and Mom joined Lincoln's party for the often-expressed reasons: ''He freed the slaves and he saved the union.''

But they saw no reason to follow party lines when they voted for president. I know, for example, that they both voted for Woodrow Wilson. And they indicated there were other times when they crossed over.

How does one tell whether a candidate has ''character''? It's a little like former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's formula for identifying obscenity: ''You know it when you see it.''

So you look a candidate over and you read about him (or her) and what he (or she) has to say and then you decide: Is this the sort of person I want to run our government, deal with other nations, and, most importantly, be an example for our children?

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