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Looking for a Few Good Characters

Steve Hochstadt: Many 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.

Election 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.

o'donnell as witch

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.

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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.

Many 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.

Steve Hochstadt

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