Why Personal Character Does Matter for Public Officials

Nearly two decades after President Bill Clinton was impeached on charges surrounding a sexual harassment lawsuit, the American people remain deeply ambivalent about whether a political leader’s personal behavior has public import. Then and now, some Americans consider a public official’s personal character irrelevant to his office.

But it is a mistake to think that a public official’s personal character—including his or her public deportment and rhetoric—is irrelevant to the common good. Although a public official’s private life is not always or in every way relevant to public office, and although public officials should not be held to unreasonable moral standards, it is nonetheless true that personal character matters for public office.

Our nation’s earliest leaders recognized this truth.

Consider President James Madison’s argument that wisdom and virtue are part of the public “trust” and necessary for the common good:

The aim of every political Constitution, is or ought to be first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust.

Similarly, Noah Webster argued that a candidate’s character is immensely important for carrying out the responsibilities of public office:

In selecting men for office, let principle be your guide. Regard not the particular sect or denomination of the candidate — look at his character…. When a citizen gives his vote to a man of known immorality, he abuses his civic responsibility; he not only sacrifices his own responsibility; he sacrifices not only his own interest, but that of his neighbor; he betrays the interest of his country.

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SOURCE: Christian Post, Bruce Ashford