Looking for a Few Good Characters

o'donnell as witchElection Day is one week away. Campaigns across the country are nasty, with negative ads playing on TV all day. In many races, candidates represent stark political contrasts.

Unusually, there are a host of new faces campaigning for national office. Incumbency, which usually provides almost insurmountable advantages to office holders, seems to have become a liability. The slogan “I am no part of the political establishment” looks like a big winner this year.

How should voters deal with candidates they don’t know, who have little or no political experience or public record? What elements of their biographies are important in deciding whether they should be elected? American voters used to be heavily swayed by “character,” a catch-all label for the virtues and vices that make up a personality. While it is very hard to prove one has a good character, the revelation of bad character traits has often proven fatal for prominent members of both parties: Embarrassing sexual activity ended the careers of Democrats Gary Hart, John Edwards, and Eliot Spitzer and Republicans Mark Foley and Larry Craig.

This year, I sense a shift away from a concern with character. Ideology appears to be a much stronger motivation for voters across the country than the kind of person who represents these ideas. Millions of Americans appear to be ready to vote for the most unpleasant people, as long as they spout the correct political phrases.

When character revelations come late in the campaign, it can be difficult to abandon one’s favored candidate.

But why would any American vote for Rich Iott, candidate for Congress in Ohio, who thought it was fun to pretend to be a member of Hitler’s SS troops? I can’t imagine an explanation of Iott’s behavior that would make me think that he is anything but an idiot; what he has offered demonstrates how poorly suited he is to sit in Congress. About the SS, Iott said, “I don’t think we can sit here and judge that today. They were doing what they thought was right for their country.” Anyone who believes mass murder can be excused as long as the murderers think that what they were doing was “right for their country” needs education, not votes. Maybe his supporters think Iott’s Waffen SS uniform will enliven C-SPAN broadcasts of Congressional debates.

Carl Paladino is running for governor of New York. Paladino appears to be a classic bully, threatening reporters and taunting gay men. An adulterous affair resulted in a child 10 years ago. He was unapologetic about sending pornographic and racist e-mails to his friends, but first had his campaign manager lie about their origin. The latest poll I have seen indicates that Paladino will lose with only 37 percent of the vote.

Christine O’Donnell, running for Senate in Delaware, is another candidate whose personal failings seem to make little difference to many voters. In earlier political campaigns, she claimed a college degree that she had not received and lied about studying at Oxford University, Princeton University and Claremont Graduate University. O’Donnell has no history of success in anything that she has tried, shows ignorance of the basic laws of the U.S., and was cited many times by the Federal Election Commission for campaign irregularities. A recent poll of Delaware voters shows O’Donnell behind her opponent 51 percent to 40 percent.

It appears that all three of these unsuitable candidates will lose. But what surprises me is that they still command up to 40 percent of voters, who are willing to ignore remarkably bad behavior to vote for unsuitable people to represent them. In other races, such as for a Senate seat in Illinois, Mark Kirk’s repeated lies about his past have barely hurt him: That race remains neck-and-neck.

Steve HochstadtMany American voters appear ready to ignore character, to vote for liars and jerks, as long as they say they will cut taxes or shrink government or whatever the popular panacea of the moment happens to be.

Why give your vote to someone who shows so little regard for honesty or respect for the public? Most of our political problems will only be solved by honest discussion and the ability to forge coalitions, not by ideological slogans.

You can’t take back your country by putting it in the hands of dishonest politicians.

We need good people of both parties in Congress, not good liars.

Steve Hochstadt

Steve Hochstadt of Jacksonville is a professor of history at Illinois College. His column appears every Tuesday in the Journal-Courier and is available and on his blog at stevehochstadt.blogspot.com.


  1. Joshua says

    “We need good people of both parties in Congress, not good liars.”

    Well said. The fact that the American people vote for whoever tells them the lie they want to hear is very sad. I would love to see a “Centrist” sweep, a viable centrist party or a party like the Modern Whig Party , with two fringe lunatic parties keeping them honest. Rather than two finge lunatic parties that can only agree on one thing, selling out the American people to the highest bidder at every opportunity.

    I do believe that you are being a little hard on Rich Lott. Historical reenactments are a good way to get people “interested” in History.It’s very easy for a Layman to focus on only a single thread of the Historical Tapestry with no understanding of the larger context of that thread. Someone has to play the “bad guys” , whether it’s the Normans, Confederates, Red Coats, Romans, ect, it doesn’t make that someone the Devil or a sypathizer of an unjust regime in the past. It only means that they don’t possess your level of knowledge and insight into a period of History, which , I think we can both agree , is very rare.

    Democracy is happening, that’s a good thing, it’s historic, be honest and take notes!

    • Steve Hochstadt says

      Dear Joshua,

      Thanks for assuming that I have unusual knowledge of history. many people who respond to my articles in my local paper seem to think that the more I know, the less qualified I should be to say anything.

      I guess we don’t agree about the nature of the two major political parties. I don’t think that the Democrats are a lunatic fringe party, and I would describe only part of the current Republican Party that way. I don’t think that centrists are the answer for this country, although a few more in Congress would be a good thing.

      I am not criticizing Iott so much for dressing up. I agree that reenactment does get people interested in history, and that it is harmless at worst. I criticize him for saying that Nazi soldiers were not so bad and that he can see a justification for their actions. You don’t need specialized knowledge of history to see how ignorant or despicable such a comment is, and therefore how unsuitable such a person is for high office.

      best, Steve

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