The Case for a Mensch in the Oval Office

By Thought Leaders Archives
Cover image for  article: The Case for a Mensch in the Oval Office

Listening to the moving and eloquent words of respect and praise for John McCain from family, friends and colleagues earlier this month, I waited for the one acknowledgement that would summarize everything:  for someone to say that John McCain was a mensch.  Mensch, a word derived from the Yiddish, originally meant simply "a person," but it has evolved into describing a very specific person who demonstrates very specific and admirable traits.  These include decency, honesty, kindness, trustworthiness, compassion and benevolence.  Not surprisingly, a person considered a mensch lacks other, less admirable characteristics such as dishonesty, arrogance, aggression, bigotry, selfishness and rudeness.

It is likely that most of us are lucky enough to have known, worked for and perhaps even been led by a mensch.  We recognize them not only by their beliefs, but by their behavior.  They are optimistic and trust in the goodness of people.  They speak the truth and understand that their words are as important as their actions.  They see beyond the immediate transaction to a long-term vision.  They are open to new ideas.  They are accountable and admit their mistakes without blaming others.  They talk the talk, but they also walk the walk.  Most critically, they unite us around a goal and appeal to our best selves to achieve that goal together, rather than divide us based on fear and anger, although as New York Times editorial writer Charles M. Blow has recently stated, "It is easier to instill people with fear than to inspire them with hope."

Yes, being a mensch is a big responsibility.  Are we asking too much, then, for a politician or even a businessman to be a mensch?  The U.S. Constitution makes no mention of character in its frustratingly vague requirements for the job of President, and it is unlikely that any such qualification would pass Human Resources muster in a job posting.

When most of us first met Barack Obama, he was delivering a speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, and while few of us knew much about him beyond his resume, his character and his behavior soon made it clear that he was a mensch.  Perhaps not surprisingly, he selected another mensch in Joe Biden as his Vice President.

Mensches need not be Democrats.  The outpouring of love and respect for Senator McCain, crossing party divisions, made clear that he embodied the character and behavior we want from our leaders: Decency, honesty, speaking truth to power and serving others before oneself.  Whether or not the word was used, every eulogy made clear that McCain was indeed a mensch.

People in business are often thought of as competitive, combative and even cutthroat.  So, can a business person be a mensch?  In fact, they have an even higher obligation to pay back society for their success, and not just financially.  Think about Herb Kelleher, the founder of Southwest Airlines. Beyond the specific, pragmatic and external actions he took to make the airline successful, the internal culture he created based around his employees as well as his customers is credited with much of the airline's success.

Time and energy are now being spent on hypothesizing who might be our 46th president, and who could possibly compete with a man who, despite his lack of "menschness," enjoys high popularity ratings among his own party, largely due to fear and the perceived positive economy, although there are signs that approval may be eroding.

But if we had a true mensch in the White House, how different people's lives would be!  A president with compassion would not separate families at the border and deny the positive impact immigrants have had on our country.  A president with tolerance would not encourage divisiveness around racial and ethnic lines.  A president with humanity would not see every counter opinion as a slight to his ego.  A president with honesty would not require fact checking of every word uttered.  And a president with kindness would not insult colleagues and foes alike with schoolyard taunts.

Character and success are not mutually exclusive.  As we look for our next leaders, both in Congress and in the White House, we must consider not only resume and rhetoric, but character as well.  When John McCain titled his 2005 book  Character Is Destiny he may have been warning us to do just that.  If we don't heed his warning, 2008 may go down as the last time Americans had two mensches to choose from, much less one.

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