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The first time the “town-hall” forum was used during a presidential debate was between President George H. W. Bush, Gov. Bill Clinton, and H. Ross Perrot on Oct. 15, 1992 at the University of Richmond. A pony-tailed man from the audience addressed the candidates. He told them that he was tired of hearing about “character.”  He wanted more emphasis placed on the issues.

Bells went off in my head. I wondered if America was on the cusp of moving in a direction that was foreign to my understanding. For me stellar character has always been the most important feature that a leader could possess. Character embodies one’s moral fiber — one’s ethics, honesty and integrity. The way one deals with issues has so much to do with one’s character that I, unlike Mr. Pony-tail, could not divorce character from leadership. How apropos that seven years later I heard Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf speak to the graduating class (1999) at none other than the University of Richmond. He reminded the graduates that they were about to become leaders of the 21st Century and that leaders don’t lead things — they lead people.

Schwarzkopf said, “Leadership is a combination of different ingredients but by far the single most important ingredient is character. ... Ninety-nine percent of our county’s failures in the last one hundred years were not failures in competency; they were failures in character.” That completely quashed the ponytailed questioner’s premise.

General Schwarzkopf told the graduates to never compromise their integrity. Everything in life can be taken away except integrity. If integrity is lost, the individual herself must have given it away. He affirmed that “Integrity is the window to one’s soul.”

Our Founding Fathers thought there were two other qualities that were a must for a leader to possess — sympathy and “fellow feeling.” The Founders believed that leaders should feel an identity of interest, rather than a conflict of interest, with the citizens that they served.

In fact those two attributes contributed to “the natural born citizen clause” being added to our Constitution as a requirement for being president. (See Article II Section 1 Clause 5.)

Old memories and stories about King George I and King Charles II were foremost in the Founders’ minds when the Constitution was written. King Charles II lived most of his young life in France and this led to him not understanding British ways. King George I spoke German and was barely able to converse in English.

How do President Obama’s actions stack up to General Schwarzkopf’s and our Founding Fathers’ list of character traits needed for a successful leader? Fast forward to today and the Zimmerman verdict. Has the president evoked tolerance, love, wisdom, compassion or “fellow feeling” when speaking about the verdict?

There is no doubt that he quickly identified with many African-Americans and their pain of history, but it is time for President Obama to realize that he is the President of all Americans — black, white, and Hispanic. He certainly offered his sympathy to the Martin family but was any sympathy offered to the Zimmerman family, who also went through stress and pain?

I wish that the president would shout from the mountain tops that our justice system, although not perfect, is the best in the world. It would have brought tremendous harmony if his words and actions had shown support for the jury’s decision. Sadly, the president’s words stirred division and almost promoted violence and lawlessness.

The president asked, “Is there more that we can do to give (young black men) the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them?” As our leader, he should have been asking that question for all young Americans.

During tense, stressful times, we need to hear our president speak calm, reassuring words. We need the president’s leadership to help bring of us together — not pull us apart. Does President Obama have the veracity and integrity to ensure us that the jury’s decision was just and final and that we do not possess a “biased criminal justice system” as Eric Holder has suggested?

The president’s lack of “fellow feeling” for some of us has created a schism that is ripping open American society. Maureen Scott recently wrote, “It is not the color of his (the president’s) skin that is a problem for anyone in America. ... It is the hollowness in his heart where there should be abiding pride and love for this country.”

It is time for the president to quit dwelling on past injustices. Hopefully he will come to the realization that all Americans (not just the African-Americans) do not want to be “judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”  

WILLEE COOPER is a former teacher and military spouse. A Hopkinsville resident, she is past president of the Kentucky Federation of Republican Women. Her column runs on the first and third Friday of each month. Reach her at willeecooper@gmail.com.

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