What's a presidential character worth?

Story highlights

  • Julian Zelizer: There are already questions that have arisen about the various personalities in the presidential field
  • We would do well as voters to continue to probe each candidate's character strengths and flaws

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Character matters a lot when it comes to presidential leadership.

During the presidential primaries, much of the conversation will simply be political noise, discussion and debate about trivial issues that won't really make a difference. We will inevitably overstate what a difference any single candidate could make in transforming politics, and there will be ongoing efforts to unfairly slam and slander different candidates through accusations of scandal.
    While it is difficult to sort through the noise in a campaign, it's important that we try to assess the character of a politician.
    In his new biography, "Being Nixon," Evan Thomas offers an insightful portrait of Richard Nixon. In his effort to unpack this infamous president, Thomas argues that Nixon's personality played an important role in his downfall.
    Nixon was an intensely shy human being, someone who could only be assertive and forceful when he was on the public stage. When speaking with advisers or colleagues, Nixon's preference was to back away.
    Julian Zelizer
    One of the results, according to Thomas, was that Nixon didn't have the kind of personal assertiveness that was necessary when some of his advisers were taking unethical and illegal actions that resulted in Watergate. He was also a person who had a dark side in which he was driven by fear and anger.
    "Hope and fear waged a constant battle in Nixon. At the end of his presidency, fear won out," Thomas writes, "Nixon was often driven by fear -- he was, he believed, surrounded by enemies."
    This is just one example of the kind of impact a person's character might have on his or her leadership. As the 2016 campaign unfolds, there are already questions that have arisen about the various personalities in the field. We would do well as voters to continue to probe.
    On the Democratic side, there are questions among members of Hillary Clinton's own political party, and certainly among her opponents, about how much she can be trusted. There is an image out there of her as someone who does not always tell the truth, as one of those persons who is willing to say and do anything necessary to win. According to her critics, and this was an issue in the 2008 Democratic primaries, she can't be taken at her word.
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    Another aspect of Hillary Clinton's character, which her supporters point to as evidence that she would be a great leader, is her tenacity and willingness to fight -- a dogged and relentless figure who will not give up when confronted with a challenge. Many Democrats feel that this is exactly the kind of character that will be necessary for a Democrat to take on a Republican Congress.
    The New York Times reported that Republicans are testing the best ads to amplify these doubts about her character. American Crossroads, the PAC started by Karl Rove, is launching an ad called "Shadow" where the narrator recounts all the scandals that have been connected to her since her time as First Lady.
    Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley has been slammed for having the kind of character that Hollywood often portrays when dealing with politicians (indeed, David Simon, creator of "The Wire," used him as one of the key figures in the television show). In O'Malley's case, the question is whether he is someone who is fresh and exciting, willing to take on ideas generally ignored, or someone who is shallow and inauthentic, a vote-grabbling machine who will literally say anything that might get him elected.
    One of the attractions to Sen. Bernie Sanders, besides his rousing fight for the middle class, is his character. Like an uncle or grandfather who always speaks his mind at the dinner table, many Democrats have been attracted by Sander's "say what he thinks" style on the campaign trail. Say what you want about his liberal views, but at least he believes in something. That's the kind of character for which many voters are thirsting, though a story in Politico has recently opened up inquiries about his personal background.
    For Jeb Bush, there is less of a sense of his character, and this in itself has become a problem. After a highly publicized start to his campaign, questions have arisen about who he is as a person. There have been some negative stories about his questionable business dealings in the years before he was elected governor of Florida. Others feel that they have no sense of who he is as a person -- other than as the son and brother of U.S. presidents and the "inevitable" nominee.
    The biggest challenge for Jeb Bush will be to share more of his character with the public, so that Republican voters have a better feel for who he would be in the role of president. If he doesn't do more of this, his opponents in the primary will do it for him -- and not in ways that he or his supporters would find flattering.
    If anyone has suffered from the reputation of their character, it is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who seems to be forever struggling to overcome Bridgegate. Though he often had boasted of his tough, straight-talking reputation, since the scandal broke there have been ongoing questions about whether he is a ruthless person who will do absolutely anything to secure votes and to punish his opponents.
    Even though he has not been implicated for anything, the composite image that has emerged of the governor -- combined with very public encounters he has had with the reporters and New Jersey resident captured on YouTube -- have created concerns about what he would do with the power that comes with the White House.
    Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who is scheduled to announce his candidacy on Monday and also has followers who like his "fighting" personality, has also elicited some of these same concerns, both as a result of investigations into his campaign practices as well as his take-no-prisoners approach to opponents in Wisconsin.
    For all the excitement about his "newish" libertarian angle, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul has displayed a side of his character during interviews with female television hosts that have been a problem. His brash and aggressive, as well as insulting, posture made many people look twice at this political upstart. His appearances raised questions about what kind of person he is, showing a level of arrogance that didn't sit well.
    For the optimistic and energetic Marco Rubio, there are questions about whether he has the character that it takes to assume this level of responsibility.
    In part, there have been questions about whether he has been put through enough rigors in the political system to have what is necessary to survive in the process. Some of his relationships in Florida, such as to former Florida Rep. David Rivera, have also raised concerns about his ethical character.
    We need to pay attention to a candidate's policy positions, leadership record and much more. But as we learn from Thomas' account of Nixon, it is important for all of us to discern what the character of the person is for whom we are voting.
    The key is for the media to distinguish between slanderous attacks on a person's personal life and genuine explorations of what kind of person a candidate would be when given power. When push comes to shove, a candidate's character might be the most important factor guiding how he or she will make decisions and run the White House.