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Likability isn't the same thing as character

Posted: December 11, 2011 - 1:04am  |  Updated: December 14, 2011 - 3:46pm

Will Rogers is reputed to have said, “I never met a man I didn’t like.” That maxim might represent a healthy outlook on life, but should likability be a priority as we consider for whom we will vote?

In one sense, likability is important as taciturn leaders generally don’t do well. Herbert Hoover was brilliant and capable, but was also stuffy and unbending. The Crash of 1929 didn’t help, either, but his stiffness contributed to his massive defeat in 1932. Given the visibility of political leadership, you have to be reasonably cordial and “real” enough that ordinary folk won’t mind seeing you so frequently on the Web and TV.

That’s why the likability of a presidential candidate is important to both political parties and to the American people as a whole. Some of us will vote less on the content of a candidate’s character and convictions than whether or not he seems “nice.”

Republican candidates are being carefully assessed in all corners, not least for their likability. The cover story of this past week’s Time magazine is titled, “Why They Don’t Like Mitt (Romney).” A Los Angeles Times poll last month found Newt Gingrich to be “one of the least likable candidates.”

But likability is truly a non-partisan issue. During one of the 2008 presidential debates, this exchange occurred between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama:

“Then-Senator Hillary Clinton was asked about her deficit of ‘likability’ and joked that the question hurt her feelings but she would ‘try to go on.’ The audience laughed and Clinton, looking over at fellow candidate for the Democratic nomination Barack Obama, admitted ‘he’s very likeable – I agree with that.’ ‘I don’t think I’m that bad,’ Clinton said, smiling. Obama barely looked up from his notes. ‘You’re likeable enough, Hillary,’ he said.”

And now, as election 2012 draws nearer, Obama’s “team is emphasizing the president’s ‘regular guy’ appeal, putting him in small-town diners, at roadside pit stops and on Jay Leno’s couch. Those settings are designed to highlight his likability,” according to the Associated Press.

In one respect, these perceptions are meaningless. Many of us like people for whom we would not vote for president, and support presidential contenders we might not want for neighbors. Moreover, one person’s likability is another’s distaste. Subjective impressions about likability should be far down the list on our electoral criteria.

Character counts far more than likability. A person can be winsome, charismatic and funny, and also be a serial adulterer. On the other hand, someone might be socially stiff and a bit awkward and be an exemplar of sterling virtues. Ideally, we want to be able to support someone both pleasant and principled. But should not principle triumph over a ready smile, if it comes to that?

Character determines public policy: Issues demanding integrity, honor and wisdom cross the desk of a president every day. Maybe one president might not smile as often as another; I’ll take the one with moral courage, thank you.

“A vote is like a rifle,” wrote Theodore Roosevelt in his autobiography. “Its usefulness depends upon the character of the user.” As each of us thinks and prays about our vote in the 2012 primaries and general election, let’s bear in mind that our choices will reflect our own character as much as that of those for whom we vote.

 

(Robert Schwarzwalder is senior vice president at the Family Research Council.)

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