Let us judge people on their accomplishments and character
For years, I have asked my journalism students whether it matters where information comes from, as long as that information is good. Let’s say, for example, a bitter fifty-year-old woman is furious that her husband dropped her for a newer model. She then tells a reporter that her husband is a crook and offers substantiating information that could put the guy in prison. Should the reporter reject the information because she doesn’t like the woman who is offering it up? The answer, of course, is no. If the information is good, it’s good despite the fact that we may not personally like the source.
It’s the same thing in politics. Take the case of Governor Andrew Cuomo. There are many insiders who don’t like the guy. There are way too many war stories about past offenses and hurts. Andrew says that he’s a different guy than he was back in the old days when he worked for his father. Sigmund Freud tells us that character is set by the time an individual is four or five years old. But people mature and may come to understand that some parts of their core character are not productive. If they find themselves about to do the same old nonproductive thing, they may hit themselves on the side of the head with realization and do what does not come naturally. Might that be going on in Andrew’s case?
The political onlookers have to make choices. They must decide whether this is the old Andrew or the wiser, more mature fellow. What’s more, like the journalist who has to evaluate where her information is coming from, we have to consider Cuomo’s political decisions. Is Cuomo making decisions to ensure his reelection as governor or to get to the White House? Should it matter? If Cuomo wants a series of laws asserting women’s rights, or gun control, or a raise in the minimum wage, or furtherance of gay rights, is the root of his ambition a fair question? If his State of the State message is preceded by unseemly and gratuitous adulation, either by himself or his appointees, should that matter? If Cuomo decides to allow fracking with the consequence that some child may end up drinking chemically tainted water so that profits can be made and jobs created, is that a matter of character?
I would submit to you that the job of governor is very different than that of president. In the Oval Office, character counts for much more. The White House is now allowed massive leeway, much of it in secret. The president can make secret troop deployments, order assassinations and do some very dirty tricks. So, while a governor has some very real limitations on power, a president has far fewer. That’s when the character of the person calling the shots really matters.
Andrew Cuomo certainly acknowledges that he has made mistakes in the past. He argues that he is not the same guy he was in his early adult years but if you talk to political insiders, they will tell you that he hasn’t changed a bit. Freud asserts that character is character. Cuomo is doing some very important things that are worthy of praise, but the question remains, is he doing them because they are the means to an end or because he really thinks these things are a matter of principle?
There are institutional demands and then there are personal convictions. Jimmy Carter may have failed as president because he had personal convictions and stuck to them, no matter what the political cost. One thing is for sure — let us judge people on their character as well as their accomplishments.
Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 1/28/13