Character vs. policies: Town Hall asks which matters more in a president

HONEST%3A+This+1867+engraving+by+John+C.+McRae+refers+to+a+famous+myth+about+George+Washington+that+when+he+was+a+boy%2C+he+damaged+his+father%27s+cherry+tree+with+a+hatchett.+The+story+goes+that+when+asked+what+happened+to+the+tree+immediately+admitted+it%2C+saying%2C+%22Father%2C+I+cannot+tell+a+lie.%22++In+advance+of+the+presidential+election%2C+students+debated+the+importance+of+character+traits+in+2020.++

Credit: MountVernon.org

HONEST: This 1867 engraving by John C. McRae refers to a famous myth about George Washington that when he was a boy, he damaged his father’s cherry tree with a hatchett. The story goes that when asked what happened to the tree immediately admitted it, saying, “Father, I cannot tell a lie.” In advance of the presidential election, students debated the importance of character traits in 2020.

By Caroline Kboudi and Benjamin Gamson

Does character matter in a leader? 

At a Town Hall on Oct. 13, a majority of students said they thought that a candidate’s policies should outweigh his or her character when deciding who to vote for in a presidential election.

But many thought character and leadership should go hand-in-hand, and others thought that character was a main factor.  And some thought that character did not matter in a leader — only policies. 

“Obviously it is important who you are as a person, but I think it is more important [to] like the policy they make and like what they do as a politician, what they are doing for the country,” said senior Rena Harkham. 

“I think that character is an additional trait, but it’s not a defining factor, so, I think it’s more important to have good ideas and have good policies for our country than how you treat people.”

With the 2020 presidential election less than a month away, the Agenda Committee created a way to discuss it without making it about the candidates. 

Agenda Chair Kate Orlanski started the meeting with a disclaimer, saying that while there were questions about President Trump’s character, the discussion should not be about him in particular but about a more abstract question.  

“This Town Hall is going to be on the premise that President Trump is criticized on both the right and the left for having poor character, “ Kate told the whole-school assembly on Zoom. “We’re going to get into that later. I know that technically, one could argue that … but we are going to be talking about things as if that were true.”

Her first Town Hall slide was: “How much / in what situations does the character of a politician matter?”

[The] first Town Hall slide was: ‘How much / in what situations does the character of a politician matter?’”

Students who thought that leadership and character were intertwined argued that policies that to make the best policies, a leader must have knowledge and good values.

“You can’t be a politician and have your character not be a huge factor — your character makes up who you are,” said junior Adina Kurzban. “You are your character. 

“If you have a bad character, that is going to affect your policy and your decision-making. If you’re a person who is corrupt in their own times.., if you have bad character, it is going to affect your policies and decisions.”

Senior Rebecca Cohen said character mattered especially for presidents.

 “They are the epitome of American values,” said Rebecca Cohen. “That’s kind of the ideal, is that they are the one who is going to be showing the entire world what our American values are. 

“We have to look at how they treat the people who agree with them, and the people who disagree with them,” she said. “When you look at somebody and the way they treat other people, do they hold other people to the level of respect they need to?”

But senior Mimi Czuker said good character wasn’t enough.

“They are representing our country…, but on the other hand we need to remember it’s not just representing our country,” said Mimi. 

“They are forming policies for our country, and they are leading our country in more ways than just that,” she said.  “Fairly often there are politicians who will present themselves super kindly or will speak really well in public and all of that, but when you look at their individual policies, they don’t actually make any sense.”   

At the other end of the spectrum was senior Ean Fish, who thought character didn’t matter at all when it came to choosing a leader.

“I don’t think characteristics of a politician matter whatsoever,” said Ean. “The politician’s job is to better the United States, and I think the only way to do that is through policy change or I guess enforcement of policy.

 “So for me I don’t think that how a politician treats anyone really makes a difference,” he continued. “I  think it’s an invalid argument to say that I don’t like this politician, or this politician shouldn’t be elected or vice versa, should be dissed or anything of that sort, because their characteristics are disgusting.”

The meeting was held as usual over Zoom, and this time the chat room on the side of people’s screens became very active. 

When English teacher Ms. Nancy Fasules used the chat to try to draw a distinction between character and personality, Kate asked her to elaborate on camera.  Ms. Fasules was happy to oblige.

“Character are your values:  your spiritual development, how you value intellect, do you lie, are you truthful, do you value the truth, do you value education, do you respect other people that’s very different from personality.” Ms. Fasules said. “And you need to separate, actually, personality from character. A person who is character-less can’t, doesn’t, have the resources to rule effectively and compassionately.”

Freshman Temma Kirshanbaum said that one would need to look at a politician’s track record to support them. 

“I think that what needs to happen is you need to look at the politicians’other policies that they have made and think: do you agree with the majority of this politician’s policy,” said Temma. “And the majority that you agree with, are those something that is important to you? So you have to go with the greater.”

As promised, actual discussion of this year’s candidates did occur briefly at the meeting’s end. 

Sophomore Joelynn Aynesazan said she’d lost friends because she supports the president, and she thought that was wrong.

There are politicians who will present themselves super kindly or will speak really well in public and all of that, but when you look at their individual policies, they don’t actually make any sense.”

— Mimi Czuker, 12th Grade

“I just don’t think that’s fair,” said Joelynn. “And he might not have the best personality, but there is a difference between personality and character, but I truly believe that he wants the best for this country.” 

“I do not agree with any of the things that he has said or done,” she added, “like the way he speaks is absolutely atrocious, but I just think he has done so much for this country, and despite his poor character. I don’t 100% support him. But if people want to support him…,that’s fine.” 

Senior Samson Taxon seemed to understand Joelynn’s position, and said it was both understandable and more common than it might seem. 

Often people vote based on what party they align with regardless of the candidate, so when you have somebody with poor character or poor personality in public, it tends to represent the party as a whole,” Samson said near the end of the meeting. 

But that, he said, makes a candidate’s character even more important.

“So if you align with Republican ideas, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you agree with the president,” Samson said. “But if you say you are voting Republican, people automatically assume that you align with everything that the president may or may not say. And that’s why I think it’s so important that public perception and the way that the president presents himself publicly is so important.”