The week of October 15-21 has been proclaimed National Character Counts Week, and in celebration of this important annual event and its significance in the formation of young people, the President of the United States issued a Proclamation on Friday, Oct. 13 about the importance of character.
“I call upon public officials, educators, parents, students, and all Americans to observe this week with appropriate ceremonies, activities, and programs,” the president said.
The date of the issuance of Trump’s Proclamation was appropriate enough, and for those who are superstitious and believe that calamities can occur on the 13th day, they weren’t disappointed by what the former reality show host offers up on a daily basis. Indeed, the calamity that is Donald Trump continued to lie during National Character Counts Week, defame others, including his predecessors, and display no empathy toward those in distress from the devastation of a hurricane or the death of a loved one killed in action in Niger.
Character does indeed count, but with Trump and his numerous bankruptcies, where he stiffed drywall installers, plumbers and other small business owners while touting his business acumen, nothing adds up except for the mountain of lies that will constitute his legacy. Or lack thereof.
National Character Counts Week included Trump lying about other presidents and their outreach to the families of soldiers killed in the line of duty. When he was asked by a reporter if he had contacted the families of the four soldiers that were killed in Niger two weeks ago, Trump changed the subject to what other presidents did and did not do in reaching out to Gold Star families.
Veteran writer Eric Boehlert put it this way:
It’s been nearly two weeks since four Army Special Forces troops were killed in an ambush by ISIS gunmen in Niger, and Donald Trump still has not publicly acknowledged their sacrifice, let along honor them or offer up condolences.
During that time, Trump has weighed in on more than a dozen topics via his Twitter account, picking fights with the NFL about how best to honor the military, whining about unfair media coverage, and trying to relive the 2016 election. But nothing to honor the troops.
In a speech on Friday, Trump actually bragged about how his team was defeating ISIS. That, just one week after ISIS fighters killed four Americasn, making it the worse day of combat loss for the U.S. military during Trump’s time in office.
Trump even golfed this weekend, while the bodies of the U.S. fallen were being returned to the U.S.
Former Florida Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Scarborough took note of Trump’s lying on Character Counts Week:
“This man is such a terrible role model and character reference for all of our children, for all of our grandchildren, that I don’t know where to start,” Scarborough said on his Morning Joe program.
If Scarborough didn’t know where to start, conservative icon and The Weekly Standard editor-at-large Bill Kristol knew where to add his opinion in the discussion about Trump’s character.
“The degradation of our public, of our civic discourse, is happening in this administration,” Kristol observed.
Trump’s penchant for lying is so bad that he inspired (?) me to compose this ditty, a la Mark Russell – with apologies to Lerner and Loewe:
We’ve grown accustomed to his lies
They almost make the day begin
We’ve grown accustomed to the tune of
prevarication night and noon
The lies, the frowns
His tales, no bounds
Are second nature to us now
Like breathing out and breathing in
When I worked about twenty years ago developing several character education programs in school districts, available research clearly demonstrated that of the core pillars of trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, citizenship, and fairness, an additional element – that of caring – was critical in the formation of other virtues in an individual’s character development.
The caring dimension is notably absent in Trump. He doesn’t care about “the little people,” as his fellow hotelier Leona Helmsley, known as the “Queen of Mean,” famously described those who punch the clock, worry about daycare and healthcare, and otherwise struggle to make a living, if not a life.
We saw those “little people” in Puerto Rico, where Trump did not care to touch or console them but instead tossed paper towels from a distance to a roomful of struggling Americans who live on an island devastated by a natural disaster of epic proportions. And we saw those little people in Atlantic City who didn’t get paid by the self-described artful dealmaker.
He is, indeed, a cold, lying, uncaring person.
The Josephson Institute of Ethics, which developed the Character Counts program and sponsors National Character Counts Week, has this to say about the central importance of caring in character development:
People who consider themselves ethical and yet lack a caring attitude toward individuals tend to treat others as instruments of their will. They rarely feel an obligation to be honest, loyal, fair or respectful except insofar as it is prudent for them to do so, a disposition which itself hints at duplicity and a lack of integrity. A person who really cares feels an emotional response to both the pain and pleasure of others.
Trump’s lack of caring about others and his overblown sense of self is becoming more apparent by the day.
“This guy has the empathy of a cockroach,” a former CIA official, Phil Mudd, said after the president’s latest press conference, where Trump complained that the job of talking to the relatives of fallen warriors was difficult. “How about the families who accepted a child or father or spouse home in a casket — it’s not a tough day for them?” Mudd said in a CNN interview.
But it takes another president to be compared with Trump to fully understand the lack of caring and resulting character deficit in the current chief executive. For that exercise, there is no better choice to use than President Harry S Truman to serve as a character baseline.
After his service in the army in World War I, Truman and his partners decided to open a men’s shop in Kansas City. Sadly, in a postwar economic downturn, the business failed in 1922, leaving Truman with a substantial amount of debt.
Unlike the current occupant of the White House, Truman never considered walking away from debt. That was dishonorable. He and his partners never filed for bankruptcy, but kept paying on their debt years after the store was shuttered.
In his acclaimed book, Truman, which won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Biography, the eminent historian David McCullough described the situation with Truman and his partners:
After much discussion, the partners decided not to file for bankruptcy – and thereby wipe out their debts – but to try to pay off their creditors as best they could, little by little as time went on… Fifteen years after the store went under, Harry would still be paying off on the haberdashery, and as a consequence would be strapped for money for twenty years.
In affirming that character counts, President Truman not only paid off his debts but left the White House in 1953 with few assets. With no fanfare, he boarded an afternoon train on January 20, 1953 at Union Station in Washington to return to his mother-in-law’s home at 219 North Delaware Street in Independence, Missouri.
McCullough masterfully describes the newly retired former president:
He had traveled home from Washington unprotected by Secret Service agents and there were to be none watching over him. He had come home without salary or pension. He had no income or support of any kind from the federal government other than his Army pension of $112.56 a month. He was provided with no government funds for secretarial help or office space, not a penny of expense money, and while he and Bess had managed to put aside part of his $100,000-a-year salary as President during his second term, primarily in government bonds, it was in all probability a modest amount. . . In fact, it is known that Truman had been forced to take out a loan at the National Bank in Washington in his last weeks as President, to tide him over . . .
A few months later, the former president decided to get in his car and make a 19-day road trip with his wife, driving the Pennsylvania Turnpike and even stopping in Columbus. He had no retinue, no one to care for his every whim. The Missouri couple stopped in diners to eat fruit plates to conserve their scare funds. In 1958, five years into retirement, and still with no presidential pension, he was even forced to sell the family farm.
That was nearly sixty years ago. On the occasion of Character Counts Week, we need to reflect on the character of the 45th president, using the example of the 33rd president as a model of trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, caring – indeed all of the pillars of character. Throw in humility, a virtue shown by the Man From Independence, that little feller with the poor eyesight who drove his own car down the Pennsylvania Turnpike and around Kansas City in his retirement.
As we reflect on presidential character, what do we see now?
Someone who demonstrates the need to see his name emblazoned on helicopters, a 757 jetliner, on the marquees of hotels, office towers, and on steaks and wine labels. Someone who constantly belittles others, lies about the most easily-checked facts, screws plumbers, carpenters, and drywall installers, comforts the comfortable with promises of more tax cuts and afflicts the afflicted by telling a new Army widow that her dead husband “knew what he signed up for.”
Yes, he’s the eponymous pompous pompadourish Potemkin-like potentate of the Potomac.
We’ll never know for sure what Trump learned from his Ivy League education at the University of Pennsylvania, the institution Benjamin Franklin founded and the prestigious school located just blocks from where I attended high school in West Philadelphia. Trump did study business at Penn but apparently did not care to study business ethics or character.
Just one more little fact when comparing Donald Trump with Harry Truman. The Man from Independence was the last president of the United States who never earned a college degree. He didn’t need one.
Happy National Character Counts Week.
Denis Smith is a retired school administrator and a former consultant in the Ohio Department of Education’s charter school office. He writes about education issues as well as politics and constitutional reform.
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