Public should reclaim meaning of character

Americans need to decide just what they mean when they talk about “character.” Right now, it is a slippery word, having more to do with whether a person is liked than whether that person behaves well. Many of the same Senate Republicans who condemn President Bill Clinton’s character voted to rename an airport for presidential liar Ronald Reagan. And, to be fair, many of Reagan’s most vociferous critics forgive Clinton his repeated half-truths. The character question dates to the founding of the republic; after a single betrayal, Benedict Arnold’s record as The Revolution’s greatest general was forgotten.
This country has never established clear definitions of what character means or reasonable criteria for judging it. This is nowhere more true than in baseball, where questions of character keep two of the sport’s best professionals from the hall of fame. The cases of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and Pete Rose are a microcosm of the nation’s mixed views on character, an example free from political partisanship.
Both players are banned from baseball and its hall of fame. Jackson was booted for his involvement in the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal, in which he and seven other Chicago White Sox players took bribes in an attempt to throw the World Series. The underdog Cincinnati Reds won the series in eight games, although Jackson betted better than in the regular season and never dropped a ball in the outfield. Banned from the game in 1920, Jackson is the third best hitter of all time. Rose’s case is more complex, but he was banned in 1989 after allegations he placed bets on baseball, perhaps even on his own Reds. Known as “Charlie Hustle,” Rose got on base more times than any other player.
In the 1980s, Rose broke several of Babe Ruth’s hitting records. Today, Ruth is an American icon. In the 1920s, a public soured by the Black Sox scandal returned to the ballpark to watch Ruth’s unprecedented mastery of the game. But off the field, Ruth drank too much, gambled, womanized and was prone to bouts of violence. Shoeless Joe went on to lead a quiet life, living modestly and running a small business in his South Carolina hometown, where he died in 1951. All told, he’s a better role model than Ruth. Given that he clearly made no attempt to throw the series, Jackson’s eternal banishment seems harsh.
Americans face the question: can we craft a moral code that allows us to forgive Shoeless Joe and condemn Bennedict Arnold? Yes, if we follow two guidelines. First, we must identify which part of a person’s character we mean to judge. A consensus around this practice seems to be growing; most Americans rightly don’t care whether Clinton enjoys oral sex from women not his wife. But lying, even about the oral sex, is a pox on his public character. Not, perhaps, enough to eclipse Clinton’s otherwise adequate presidential performance. This second criterion holds for Jackson and Rose — the damage they did to baseball’s reputation is ultimately not greater than the good they did the game. The real test will come when Americans apply this test, fairly, to their own heroes and villains. Doing so might say more about the character we have than the characters we judge.