Far and away, the most fascinating thing I ran into over the long holiday weekend was this series of tweets from the host trying to encourage a discussion between Roger Kimball and Jonah Goldberg about character and public service. The starting point is an article by Kimball in which he is responding to what I presume, since I could find no trace of it, was a private conversation between himself and Goldberg. He could be responding to Goldberg’s body of work or he is responding to Goldberg’s new book, released just Monday 12/31/18, that I know the host was able to read in advance of publication and wonder if Kimball was not similarly able. I am not blessed with such access, but what I have seen and heard in advance indicates that some of that book would relate to this topic.
To date, I have been unable to find a direct response from Goldberg to Kimball’s piece. The host, in his tweet series promoting such discussion, adds to it by quoting Washington’s farewell address. I would encourage the reader to read all links, in detail. The entirety of Washington’s address would be a great place to start. The host’s quote is an attempt to inject religion into the discussion, pointing out that Washington said plainly that character was necessary to the functioning of our republic and that religion was necessary to maintaining character. As preamble, I would also encourage the reader to read this piece by Victor Davis Hanson on why our so-called elites have let us down in many ways.
And finally, before I dive in, some disclaimer. This discussion, as far as it has gone, quotes the great classics, sometimes in the original. I must confess to not being terribly well versed in them. I have read some, and by degree I am as educated as those in this discussion, but while they were reading Aristotle in the original I was learning to prove the Mean Value Theorem. (For the uninitiated the Mean Value Theorem is the theorem one must prove before proving the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus and the far more difficult proof.) While they became fluent in Greek and Latin, I learned to synthesize darn near anything beginning with alcohols of four carbons or less and benzene. While they read their way through the Reformation, I learned to identify unknowns using Infrared, Mass and Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy. Some are likely to claim that I am therefore disqualified from entering the discussion. I disagree. Character should be universal and universally accessible – it should be common. This country, as Washington says, is prefaced on such. If it is strictly the purview of the specifically and highly educated then we lose.
The discussion, as presented in the Kimball piece, centers on Donald J. Trump. He is the current heart of the matter, is he not? But the discussion should be broader. The president is; however, at hand and quite illustrative. So, I’ll play. Much of the discussion centers on Goldberg’s assertion, as quoted by Kimball, “He’s written this several times, most recently, I believe, at National Review where he puts it negatively: it is an ‘obvious truth,’ he says, that ‘President Trump is not a man of good character.'” Kimball then tries to take up Goldberg’s challenge, “Please come up with a definition of good character that Donald Trump can clear.” Kimball then goes on to make the case that Trump’s character can be measured by his accomplishments. While I agree that the president’s accomplishments are many and for the most part good, I think character is far more complex than simply accomplishment.
Besides, it is not the accomplishing, but the specific accomplishment and the manner in which it was accomplished that matters when it comes to character. Quoting Kimball:
As for coming up with “a definition of good character” that the president can clear, let me begin by backing into it and offering a negative definition a friend of mine offered: “Maybe not having sex in the Oval Office with an intern, weaponizing the IRS, DOJ, CIA, and FBI, being impeached for lying under oath or wiping clean thousands of text messages and emails under subpoena…”. The concluding ellipsis, it should go without saying, looks forward to a much longer list.
That is a laundry list of accomplishments by other administrations, but they in no way add up to good character. There is clearly more to character than simply accomplishment, even good accomplishment. It seems clear that accomplishment is, at best, a moral neutral.
Rather than discuss what is “obvious,” (As someone that had to prove things with mathematical rigor in school I can tell you that our shorthand for not being able to actually prove what we set out to prove was the statement “It is intuitively obvious to the casual observer”) I would like to discuss what is clearly, and not so clearly, in evidence concerning the current president and character. I’d like to focus that discussion in three areas. First, the president is indeed a man of very poor character when it comes to his marital and sexual conduct – the evidence is clear. Secondly, when it comes to his business dealings there is insufficient evidence regarding his morality and character. Finally, the evidence is quite persuasive that the man is a boor. The question is does that add up to a man that is of bad character, and more importantly of sufficiently bad character to disqualify him from the presidency?