How can we judge the character of a presidential candidate? Honesty and basic decency are a good start along with the strength to do what is right rather than what is popular. Moreover, a candidate must not confuse appearance and reality on the character issue. They must truly possess the virtues needed for the presidency.
McCain might seem to have an advantage on the character question. His experience in Vietnam has not been depreciated by credible critics. He was a real war hero and not a little of that past informs how most voters see McCain today.
In recent weeks, he seemed to show courage in electoral battle. He said “it is not the duty of government to bail out and reward those who act irresponsibly, whether they are big banks or small borrowers.”
McCain visited the poor and did not promise his presidency would magically make them rich. He has persisted in supporting the Iraq War and in promising to cut spending. In 2008, both positions run counter to the preferences of a majority of Americans.
But McCain has lately come up short on the character question. He now proposes to bail out borrowers and is calling for the suspension of the gas tax for the summer. What contempt a man who endured torture must have for voters who cannot bear a little pain at the pump. And yet he feels their pain for fear of failure in November.
Barack Obama is more complex case, in part because he is unknown. He has not been tested in important ways. True, Obama seemed willing to listen to people who disagreed with him. He refused to demonize his opponents, thereby putting aside a potential advantage for his campaign. Obama also appeared to be straightforward and honest, a man you could respect even though you disagreed with everything he said and did.
For all that, Obama’s great rhetorical talent always threw a shadow on his character. Was he really what he seemed to be or just what everyone wanted him to be? Perhaps he was just better than anyone else at faking sincerity.