By MARSHA MERCER
On the holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday, you’ll likely hear people quote from King’s inspiring “I Have a Dream” speech.
“I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but the content of their character,” King declared at the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963. We aren’t there yet.
Today, King, who won the Nobel peace prize a year later and was assassinated in 1968, is revered for his leadership of the civil rights movement and his advocacy of nonviolence. He is an unalloyed American hero and a role model for children.
Role models are rare in public life, and, during the run-up to elections, character can become weaponized. In 2016, Hillary Clinton charged Donald Trump was morally unfit to be president, and he attacked her as “crooked Hillary.”
In 2020, “character is on the ballot,” Joe Biden said Tuesday at the Democratic presidential debate.
We may despair about the country’s direction, but character still counts. President Trump was impeached and faces a trial in the Senate starting Tuesday because integrity still matters.
The House voted last month along party lines to impeach Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, accusing him of attempting to force a foreign power to do his political dirty work, to investigate Biden and his son Hunter.
Trump used the powers of the presidency to benefit his own political campaign. He tried to pressure the president of Ukraine to announce an investigation into the Bidens by withholding nearly $400 million in military aid and denying him a White House meeting. Trump released the aid only after news outlets reported on the scheme.
Trump and his Republican supporters claim he did nothing wrong and have repeatedly slammed impeachment as a “hoax” and a “witch hunt.”
Where people stand politically colors their view of impeachment, but nearly three in four Americans think Trump is not a good role model for children, a Quinnipiac University poll also reported last March. Almost all Democrats – 97% -- said he isn’t a good role model, and nearly 40% of Republicans agreed.
Telling the truth is a sign of character, but this is the president of “alternative facts.” As of Dec. 10, Trump had made more than 15,413 false or misleading claims since he took office, according to fact checkers at The Washington Post.
Democratic presidential candidates have generally avoided getting into the liar-calling business, until now. Elizabeth Warren claimed Bernie Sanders told her in a 2018 conversation a woman could not beat Trump. Asked about it in the last debate, Sanders denied he’d ever said such a thing. After the debate, a live mic onstage caught Warren telling Sanders twice, “I think you called me a liar on national TV.” She refused to shake his hand.
He replied, “You know, let’s not do it right now,” adding, “You called me a liar.”
What’s sad and mystifying is how Trump has normalized abnormal behavior. Many people no longer care if he tells the truth as long as he appoints conservative judges, cuts their taxes and unleashes business from regulations. If, as expected, the Republican-controlled Senate acquits Trump and leaves him in office, he will falsely claim he’s been exonerated, firing up his base for November.
But not all Republicans are sanguine. Sen. James Lankford, a conservative Republican of Oklahoma who directed the large Baptist youth camp there, looked for a role model candidate during the 2016 GOP presidential primaries – and Trump wasn’t, he said on “Face the Nation” last month. He wishes Trump “was more of a role model,” he said, explaining, “I don’t like the way he tweets, some of the things he says.”
But voters, not he, choose who he works with in Washington, Lankford said.
No candidate is perfect, of course, but we can make character decisive when we vote.
As Theodore Roosevelt wrote in 1900 when he was running for vice president on the Republican ticket: “Alike for the nation and the individual, the one indispensable requisite is character.”
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