A nation's search for moral leaders

November 04, 1998|By Crispin Sartwell

WE NEED leaders with moral character. But we don't know what moral character is.

To listen to the current yammer, you'd think that moral character consisted of abstaining from sex. Or that it involved saying the words moral character and families and children repeatedly.

But think about Americans who actually possessed great moral character: Martin Luther King Jr., Henry David Thoreau, Emma Goldman, Malcolm X. Here's what these folks had in common: Passion.

They held deep convictions. They felt their messages were urgent and delivered them with a sense of urgency.

Commitment. They put their fortunes, time and bodies on the line. They didn't compromise fundamental matters of principle. They showed by example that a different way of life could be achieved.

Integrity. It may sound trivial, but these folks did their own writing. When Thoreau delivered anti-slavery lectures, he spoke his own intense and beautiful words. After Malcolm X broke with the Nation of Islam, his words were his own. Many people tried to censor or tone down Goldman' s anarchism and feminism -- without success. King composed the beautiful sermons that he delivered with such fire.

Name a U.S. politician who makes any sort of reasonable approach to these qualities.

Name someone who is considering a run for the presidency who is not being scripted by pollsters and spin doctors.

Name a U.S. politician who speaks with the authority that emerges from deep conviction or tells hard truths. Name a presidential candidate who writes his own speeches.

Malcolm X was a convicted felon. King's private life was the subject of an FBI investigation. Goldman describes a brush with prostitution in her autobiography. Some scholars believe that Thoreau had an affair with Ralph Waldo Emerson's wife. These people, thank God, were not perfect. But they were authentic.

The real breakdown of morals in this country's leadership is not sin or addiction. It is irreality. My problem with President Clinton isn't that he had sexual trysts in the White House; my problem is that he is a fraud -- a quality he shares with almost every major U.S. political figure today.

VTC Imagine King deciding his position on the basis of polling numbers. Or Goldman calling in former Clinton adviser Dick Morris to craft a new image and a set of positions to match.

The claim that Mr. Clinton has lost "the moral authority to govern" as a result of the Lewinsky matter is laughable.

First of all, people do not govern by moral authority, but rather by raw power. But second, the claim that Mr. Clinton ever had any moral authority -- that he was ever on the same planet as moral authority -- is a complete misunderstanding.

Evidently, what the American people want in a president is a mannequin, a kind of handsome muppet who mouths words that emerge from some focus group.

We do not have a political system or political discourse; we have a marketing system and advertising. And who Mr. Clinton is for the cameras has no more to do with who he really is than "Coke: It's the Real Thing" has to do with a can of corn syrup.

However, the problem isn't just Mr. Clinton. It's all of our political leaders. If you believe that there is any authentic passion, commitment and integrity emerging from Vice President Al Gore, House Minority Leader Richard Gephart, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Missouri Republican Sen. John Ashcroft, and so on, you are living in some kind of delusory universe where reality has collapsed utterly into appearance.

And the problem isn't even all these poor politiclones, either. It's us. We listen to them. We vote for them.

If we had a leader with moral character, we'd get rid of her in the blink of an eye: We demand poltroons and panderers. Maybe it's time we showed a little moral character ourselves.

Crispin Sartwell teaches ethics at Penn State University in Harrisburg, Pa. His most recent book is "Act Like You Know." His e-mail address: mindstoripeline.com.

Pub Date: 11/04/98

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