As an ROTC product, I got my infantry credentials in the summer of 1971. The Vietnam War was winding down, and, to my surprise, they didn’t need all us young lieutenants on active duty. So they offered us the Guard/Reserve option if we’d agree to a longer commitment. I took it so that I could stay on track in grad school, and right away I found a mechanized-rifle-platoon-leader slot in a little town about an hour away. Turns out, another officer in our unit lived in my city, so we took turns driving to drill.
A number of Saturday mornings, one young woman or another would come out with him to the car, and we’d drop her off at her place before we headed east. They’d spent an out-of-wedlock evening together at his apartment. I, a young Baptist deacon, didn’t appreciate this lifestyle, but I didn’t express my mutually understood disapproval. And there were other differences. For instance, as a “teetotaler,” I didn’t join him in after-hours beers, when his comb-over would fall awry and his conversational composure would slip a bit. Nevertheless, I liked and admired him.
When the bell for duty rang, he was all in. He’d earned the Ranger tab at Fort Benning and served on LRRPs (Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols) in Vietnam, sleeping in daytime and traveling at night behind lines. If one of my “tracks” wouldn’t start at 2:00 a.m. in a mesquite grove down at Ft. Hood (where we trained as part of the 2nd Armored Division), he’d roll out of his sack to “slave off” our dead M113, so we could get ourselves refueled to “saddle up” and “jump off” at dawn.
Another time, when I thought stupidly that ‘spring’ meant ‘warm’ at Fort Campbell, I failed to pack my backup blankets. Not long into Friday night, I found myself shivering in a pup tent. When he saw my plight, he loaned me his blankets and then stood by the fire during those midnight hours. And yet another time, when I was full of my officer-self, I stepped early into the chow line. He quietly called me aside to explain that the troops ate first, and then he led me to join him in serving them from those old marmite containers. With him, it was one effectual thing after another.
He wasn’t big on sexual virtue, but he excelled in what I’ll call the “fiduciary virtues” of honoring the trust that Uncle Sam had put in him to prepare us for the fight and then to fight well when called upon. In contrast, I sometimes served with men who were admirable in their “outside” lives, but were indifferent soldiers, or, worse, a drag on the unit.
When I hear someone insisting that they can’t vote for a candidate (usually Trump) because “character matters,” I have to ask what they mean by that. Of course, at one level, the expression, “character matters,” is a tautology; that’s just what “character” means — a salutary and commendable habit. But to say that personal rectitude is a sine qua non for signal public service is an overreach.
I’m reminded of the old byword, “Sports builds character.” Well, of course, it can, as when slackers and loners learn discipline and teamship. But each day’s news brings fresh upset from universities and pro-teams, where batterers, brawlers, rapists, druggies, and DUI’ers have dragged themselves and their institutions into embarrassment and court. The connection between sports (indeed, excellence in sports) and personal uprightness is contingent. Similarly, personal failings of character can hinder one’s government work, but they needn’t. Indeed, in some cases, the officials may redouble their efforts at exemplary service to compensate for personal tawdriness, past or present.
I understand the “vote for the virtuous” impulse. As a Wheaton prof in Republican-heavy DuPage County (IL), I did some phone campaigning for Jimmy Carter. After all, he was a Southern Baptist Sunday-school teacher (in my own denomination), who’d done evangelistic mission work in New York City, stood up to segregationist Lester Maddox, performed honorable duty with the Navy, and stayed true to his Christian wife, Rosalynn. Furthermore, he wasn’t tainted by the Republican crew who’d brought us Watergate. (Besides, his opponent, Ronald Reagan, had been divorced and had married a divorcee.)
Boy, was I confused. Carter may have shown he was one with the common man by carrying his own garment bag through airports, but he didn’t carry the water very well as president. He managed to both proclaim and nurture national malaise.
Okay, good guys can blow it, but it doesn’t begin to follow that bad guys can nail it. And surely there are limits to how much badness we can stomach in hope that good things will eventuate. The “lesser evil” can be intolerable, right? One observer recently played the Charles Manson card, saying we certainly wouldn’t vote for him, even if he promised good Supreme Court appointees. He meant this as a reductio ad absurdum, an extreme hypothetical meant to hit back at the hold-your-nose-for-the-cause crowd.
As an aside, I’m amazed at the epithetical hysterics directed at Trump, some placing him in the vicinity of Manson’s moral neighborhood. I have to wonder if they have any epistemology, never mind Christian charity. He may prove to be an ogre and his supporters pathetic, unprincipled fools, as they suggest, but I don’t think it’s churlish to ask for more measure in their judgments at this juncture. They act as though Trump supporters are rationally equivalent to denizens of the Arab Street when they themselves seem just as excitable as they cluster in their own souq.
But back to Manson. Of course, a paroled Manson couldn’t be on the ballot, except in Virginia, where cynical governor, Terry McAuliffe, removed the anti-felon restriction to boost the Democrats’ voter pool. But imagine that Manson gets converted in prison and wants to make amends for his horrific past. Christians can countenance horrific pasts, including Paul’s. (Yes, I know: “Mr. Manson, I’ve met the Apostle Paul, and you’re no Apostle Paul!”)
Even if Manson were unrepentant yet politically helpful, there is precedent for accepting “strange bedfellows.” If we’re talking murder, Manson was a piker compared to Stalin, with whom the U.S. sided against Hitler in WWII. (I heard Dennis Prager make this point the other day.) We held our nose and made that call, and the Russians’ hands were strengthened by Allied Lend-Lease help as they bled the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front. Of course, the Iron Curtain and the Cold War were dreadful, but most of us would take them over the Third Reich. Extending the analogy, we might imagine some Americans refusing to support either Hitler or Stalin, instead urging that all available funds and materiel be diverted to boost the far more likable French Resistance or to help reinstate Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie, trampled by Italian fascists despite his moving plea to the League of Nations. But the crux of the war was elsewhere. “Never Stalin” has a nice ring to it, but I’d have still gone with the shipment of relief tanks and aircraft through the Soviet port of Archangel.
Look, good people can disagree on the math. I’m glad that we deposed the bloody whirligig Saddam Hussein, and I wish our current president had had the wisdom and fortitude to fortify our gains in that war. But I don’t count crazy the camp that says we’d been better off with the bloody whirligig we had in 2001 than the ones unleashed in the form of the Sunni ISIS and the Teheran-cozy Shia in Baghdad. In foreign affairs, we make our messy calculations all the time, and justifiably so. And while there are clear deontological reasons to refrain from evil acts for teleological gain, I search in vain for a duty to shun all cooperation with evil people. (How would politics be possible otherwise?)
The literature on virtue is vast, including Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (e.g., generosity, between the extremes of wastefulness and stinginess) and the closing words of the Love Chapter (1st Corinthians 13), where faith, hope, and love are honored. This week, I’ve been reading Josef Pieper’s The Four Cardinal Virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance) and Deirdre McCloskey’s The Bourgeois Virtues (e.g., sociability, humor, pride of accomplishment, and enterprise). In ROTC, I was tutored in the military leadership traits under “JJDIDTIEBUCKLE” (e.g., decisiveness, initiative, endurance). The lists vary widely in length, and the canon is open. (I once irritated a Festschrift editor by arguing that friendliness was a virtue; in the end, he, a Massachusetts native, acquiesced to my Southern conceit).
So what might I have in mind for the “fiduciary virtues.” Let me suggest that they can be captured in guardianship and stewardship, the former devoted to keeping safe our citizens, and hence our laws, borders, liberties, environment, strategic alliances, economy, and cultural treasures; the latter concerned with making the most of our God-given resources, both personal and material. Of course, the fiduciary virtues are hybrids, partaking of justice, love, courage, prudence, and such, but the center of mass is the commonweal, not the leader’s spiritual flourishing.
We can go back and forth on which candidate is best positioned and dispositioned to encourage these things. I would argue that the Obama administration has failed spectacularly in this connection (e.g., with Obamacare, the Iran nuclear deal, “Fast and Furious,” Benghazi, social-engineering of the military, immigration tyranny, Holder/Lynch absurdities, IRS abuse, rhetorical gymnastics re Islam, Keystone, Supreme Court appointments, etc.). Furthermore, a main reason Trump triumphed in the Republican primaries was the failure of party leaders to exhibit strong fiduciary virtue in addressing Obama’s alternatively feckless and toxic agenda, even as they vilified those within their ranks who showed a readiness to put such virtue into play.
So, yes, it’s wonderful to have leaders who bring to office a lifetime of righteousness or who, despite past failings, show promise of decency in office (and not where a Paula Jones portends a Monica Lewinsky). They help set the national tone, enjoy more moral force in their “bully pulpits,” avoid blackmail, etc. But we can still be grateful for the contribution of such impure vessels as Alexander Hamilton and Martin Luther King (both involved in sexual sin); as U.S. Grant and the Islam-moderating Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (both with a weakness for alcohol). All things being equal, probity in these regards helps. But I think it’s fair to ask that the “Never” partisans demonstrate that all things are, in fact, being equal.
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