What Kind Of Character Counts?

In a political season, the question of character sooner or later arises. Madison tartly noted that if men were angels, no government would be necessary. The corollary is that those who seek to govern aren’t going to be angels either. The question, therefore, becomes how much imperfection is too much?

Hamilton was a genius, but also a prideful hot-head and it got him killed. Jefferson was an idealistic dreamer, but he kept slaves and practiced the sort of weaseling, underhanded hardball politics worthy of Boss Tweed. Nixon was talented and pathological. Lincoln and FDR were incredibly crafty, managing to make all sides in an argument believe they were with them alone. Philanderers and peculators, thy name is legion.

Critics cheerfully clamber aboard their high horses to denounce pols of the party to which they don’t adhere while turning a blind eye or excusing the atrocities committed by their own tribe. There’s something in the Bible about this sort of behavior concerning motes and beams. I got to thinking about this issue because of a review of a new book about Churchill. You are no doubt thinking, how can there possibly be any need for another book about Churchill? But this one is a doozy, as they said in his day.

”No More Champagne” by David Lough concerns a mere sideshow to the pageant of the great man’s life — his finances — yet it is filled with fascination and has a direct bearing on the question of the flaws in men who lead, about what’s over the line and what you just have to sigh and accept. One line that can be drawn is between private misbehavior and public, but drawing such a line is tricky.

Churchill was to the manor born, but he did not inherent sufficient wealth to live the sort of life he felt entitled to. Being Churchill, he didn’t let that stop him, however. By 24 he was lamenting to his mother that “these filthy money worries are the curse of my life…” He was a careless spendthrift, as was his mother, and he knew it. But on he went – buying polo ponies, boar hunting in France and in the depths of 1935’s depression economy spending $62,000 on champagne.

Of course, he rarely paid for all his indulgences at the time they occurred. Readers of British fiction are well-aware that toffs perpetually subsist on credit while the tailors, carriage makers, purveyors of food and spirits and other tradesmen and servants wait forlornly to be paid. That’s not just financially obtuse but morally contemptible.

Lough tells us that a month after becoming Prime Minister Churchill was so far in arrears that he couldn’t afford to pay household expenses, taxes or interest on his large debt. An anti-Nazi banker of Austrian origin promptly wrote him a check for $250,000. The same friendly fellow had bailed him out of a stock market catastrophe two years earlier to the tune of $1.2 million. It could be argued that he expected nothing in return, but only if you don’t count the defeat of the Axis and the return of his homeland. In our own time, big money often finds its way to candidates, and it is reasonable to suppose a quid pro quo is implied.

After the war, Churchill’s admirers raised $4 million to buy his estate Chartwell, to provide him a home for life and then to see that it passed to the National Trust of historic properties. Ronald Reagan was the beneficiary of similar largesse before, during and after his time in power. Other presidents have also been on the receiving end of highly favorable real estate transactions. And the Bush saga abounds in crony alchemy whereby failed businesses are transmuted to gold and persons with minimal investment capital wind up with baseball or real estate fortunes.

In Churchill’s least attractive moment, as Prime Minister, he twisted the arm of the tax office to get highly favorable capital gains treatment of his earnings as an author. Thus the pauper of 1940 left office six years later a very wealthy man. By any standard this is an abuse of power since he did not legislate that same deal for anyone else. It was for him and him alone.

Few would say that a careful-with-money Chamberlain would have been preferable to the profligate Churchill in 1940, but that is hindsight talking and hardly makes for a useful rule to live by. In our own time we are still left to struggle with deciding which flaws are trivial and which disqualifying in public servants. At the minimum, wouldn’t we like to believe they really seek to serve the public and not just themselves and their largest donors?

Trump seem incapable of telling truth from fiction and has the manners of a class bully. Ben Carson also seems to inhabit a reality adjacent to our own. Rubio has had a history of loosey-goosey relations with money. The Clintons have a habit of prevaricating and have enriched themselves via a charitable foundation. A number of candidates preach a stern morality for those without means, but wink at the bad behavior of those more generously endowed with cash, connections and legal representation.

Charity often seems to be in short supply among members of the political class as do empathy and other traditional virtues. Voters often choose to follow men they’d like to have a beer with. They might be better off if they’d asked themselves which candidate they’d trust with their wallet, their wife or their son’s life.


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