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Does the ‘content of their character’ still matter in the 2020 race?

It’s easy to mock Democrats for setting the bar too high. But at least they have a bar

Political partisans have twisted Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech to suit their 2019 conservative agendas, until “content of their character” means whatever they want it to, Curtis writes. (AP file photo)
Political partisans have twisted Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech to suit their 2019 conservative agendas, until “content of their character” means whatever they want it to, Curtis writes. (AP file photo)

OPINION — “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” It might be the only quote by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that many Americans can recite by heart.

There is good reason for that, as political partisans have twisted a 1963 speech to suit their 2019 conservative agendas, despite the fact that those who now embrace him as one of their own would be horrified by King’s belief in extensive change in the system.

That quote can mean whatever you want it to, dressed up as approval of an American hero whose luster has only grown as his often revolutionary work fades into memory. That short snippet expresses a sentiment judged far more benign than others from that same speech, as when the Nobel Peace Prize winner said: “We’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

What cannot be disputed is a simple message stripped down — that in life, character matters. It is a message that is aspirational, something to live by and pass on to the next generations.

But does that ultimate test of goodness remain, or has character been cavalierly ditched for the sake of political expediency?

How about a quote for a new age? Perhaps from acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, who was asked by CNN about whether contacts between members of the 2016 Trump team and Russians, though not necessarily criminal, might present ethical and moral problems.

“I think the voters are going to decide about the ethics and morality of the people they vote for on either side,” Mulvaney said. “People liked Bill Clinton even though they might not have thought he was that ethical. That’s not the job of the House Intelligence Committee. It’s not the job of the House Judiciary Committee. It’s not the job of the House Oversight Committee. They’re supposed to review the functioning of government. Voters make decisions about the candidates in other places.”

Ultimately that is true, I suppose — though being agnostic is not exactly a profile in courage. And using Clinton, whom Republican politicians were quick to judge as immoral and vote to impeach, presumes everyone has amnesia. Mulvaney also said the report of special counsel Robert Mueller (in truth the four-page William Barr summary of such) “completely exonerates the president,” when it says no such thing.

Character is something you will find in the civil servant who has worked on checking security clearances during Democratic and Republican administrations. Tricia Newbold, an 18-year employee for the Executive Office of the President, said she raised concerns through channels about the process and the clearances given to at least 25 employees, clearances granted by White House officials who overruled her recommendation after extensive background checks. She told NBC she became a whistleblower after she was ignored or retaliated against — professionally and personally — by supervisors.

She was not exactly alone in her concerns. Former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and former White House counsel Don McGahn both wrote internal memos over their concerns about administration adviser and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner receiving a clearance, according to a New York Times report.

“I would not be doing a service to myself, my country, or my children if I sat back knowing that the issues that we have could impact national security,” Newbold said. And for that, Newbold, who has a rare form of dwarfism, said her supervisor moved files she needed for work out of her reach.

It’s hard to argue that character matters when the president of the United States does not seem to care. And why would he? At a Trump rally last fall, one of his fervent fans, after professing her devout Christianity, told me how she loved everything about the president, “including his nasty, stinking mouth.” Maybe he was right during the 2016 campaign when he said he could shoot someone “in the middle of Fifth Avenue” and not lose any voters.

Donald Trump uses his rallies to assign ridiculous nicknames to his political opponents. (I wonder how a parent punishing a child for bullying classmates would ever hope to explain his or her own “pencil-neck Adam Schiff” T-shirt.) The president spreads discredited theories on voter fraud that only undermine confidence in democracy, and he sprays profanity in calculated bursts to a crowd that eats it up.

Meanwhile, Democrats, in the middle of deciding which one of their many declared and undeclared 2020 candidates can best beat the incumbent, have been accused of demanding too stringent a purity test. The latest to be caught in whether his #MeToo conversion is coming too late is former Vice President Joe Biden, whose brand of retail politics is looking too close for comfort.

Though it is easy to mock the familiar Democratic trait of setting the bar high and finding everyone wanting, you have to give it to them. At least there is a bar.

The question is, are they betting on a character test at a time when the rules have changed?

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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