How to elect a president

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.
September 4th, 2023

Four years go by fast, especially at my age. The last four have given us the COVID pandemic, the war in Ukraine, the emergence of artificial intelligence, record breaking heat waves, floods and other natural disasters, the launch of the Webb telescope, space ship rides for billionaires, and the increasing rancor of our political parties and partisans.

And now, with some still disputing the results of the last presidential election, we are about to have another one. Can we handle it? I’m not so sure. So, in the interest of simplifying the decision making process, I humbly offer these simple guidelines for choosing our next president.

They came to me in a book that my wife found at our town recycling center, Munro Leaf’s “How to Behave and Why.” This little classic, published in 1946, is described on the inside cover as “a book for bewildered parents from a simpler time when we all agreed on what was right and wrong…It is a sure guide for teaching children (and adults) how to behave.” Now wouldn’t we all appreciate a president who knew how to behave? According to Mr. Leaf, good behavior is simply a matter of being honest, fair, strong, and wise.

Let’s start with being honest and imagine ourselves applying the honesty test to our presidential candidates. Mr. Leaf writes that honest people tell the truth and that enables others to trust them. When we earn the trust of others, they will share things with us and help us when we are in need because they know they can count on us to do whatever we promise in return.

The quickest way to lose a friend, according to Mr. Leaf, is to lie. If people can’t trust what we say to be true, then they can never really know us or like us. Mr. Leaf also goes on to say that lying hurts the liar at a deeper, existential level. Not in those words, of course. This is, after all, a book to be read to children. The habitual liar, according to Mr. Leaf, not only confuses his listeners but also risks becoming confused himself and not really knowing what the truth is. Okay then, applying Leaf’s first rule of behavior to the presidential election process, we are looking for an honest politician.

Don’t laugh. This is serious business. An honest politician was hard enough to find when we had reason to trust the media as unbiased sources of objective information, but now in the age of fake news, partisan media outlets, and candidates who believe that telling a lie often enough will make it sound like the truth, the challenge seems overwhelming.

Perhaps the best we can do is to remember our common human frailty and cast our vote for the person who at least shows some understanding that truth is important even if they do not always live up to the standard they claim to champion.

And while we’re at it, let’s pay attention to Mr. Leaf’s reminder that stealing and cheating are also violations of honesty and be sure to include them on our checklist of qualities we don’t want to see in our next president.

I’m not sure how many candidates we can eliminate with the honesty test, but let’s see if Mr. Leaf’s next quality, being fair, can narrow the field. The essence of fairness, according to Mr. Leaf, is acting on the belief “that other people have just as much right to be alive and happy as we have.” This belief also encourages friendly behavior and involves sharing the good things in our lives with others as well as sharing the workload in our homes, communities, or any group of which we are a part.

We who live in 21st century America occupy a privileged position among nations and among the long chain of nations throughout history. We are lucky to be here, but some of us are luckier than others and have more than our fair share of life’s benefits. What is our obligation to those among us who have not had the opportunity to share in those benefits? What is our obligation to make use of whatever opportunities we do have to better our position in life? How can we be fair – fair to everyone regardless of race, national origin, religion, sex, gender identity, or any other quality that goes into the mix that we call our personal identity?

There are more questions than answers, and perhaps the best we can do is to vote for a candidate who is at least asking the right questions and searching honestly for the best answers.

Whoever that is, if we apply Mr. Leaf’s selection criteria, he will also have to be strong. A strong person, according to Mr. Leaf, is someone with a “clean, healthy mind,” that comes from “taking the time to think what is right and then doing it no matter how scared you are or when it would be easier to do wrong or even if somebody else tries to talk you into it.” Or as Lincoln put it so memorably in his second inaugural address, we must act “with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.” We wouldn’t be wrong to call this integrity or strength of character, and we would be fortunate indeed to find a presidential candidate who embodies this quality.

So far, we have winnowed the field of presidential candidates down to those who are honest, fair, and strong. Is there anyone left, and what would he or she look like? If we are to be true to Mr. Leaf’s criteria, then that person would also have to be wise. According to Mr. Leaf, if we have developed the first three qualities, then being wise should come easily.

Wisdom, as the author explains it, emanates from the belief that we are not the only people in the world who matter and that everyone’s thoughts and ideas are worthy of respect. He is not far off the mark set by philosophers and reflective human beings throughout the ages and summarized in the Cambridge Dictionary’s definition of wisdom as, “the ability to use your knowledge and experience to make good decisions and judgments.”

We cannot gather knowledge and experience without remaining open to the knowledge, experience, thoughts, and ideas of others. With that kind of respect and openness, coupled with a sense of honesty, fairness, and strength of character, our next president will be more likely to make the kinds of decisions and judgments that will benefit our society. He or she will be wise.

Who would have thought that a children’s book written in 1946 would tell us everything we need to know to help us elect a president? Maybe it isn’t the answer. After all, this is not the “simpler time when we all agreed on what was right and wrong,” but I like to think that our differences are more a matter of how people of good character bring their wisdom to bear on the important issues of our own time than questions about what constitutes good character.

So let the honest, fair, strong, and wise candidates explain how they plan to achieve the goals of our constitution, to preserve our “more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” And then let us use whatever wisdom we have gathered to make our choice.

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