In an on-the-street interview, a Manhattan woman said this about the deluge of White House scandals. “I always assume that a president will also be a criminal. There is no way to be an honest president of like a dishonest country.”

Sad. A citizen of the United States does not merely accept the idea of the president of the United States being a criminal. She expects it. She expects dishonesty from her fellow citizens and corruption from her government.

No one I know says, “I prefer corrupt and dishonest politicians.” However, enough of us vote for them (and put up with voter fraud and suppression) or we wouldn’t have so many. Many of us, like the woman in the video, accept that our leaders are corrupt and do not expect them to be individuals of character and integrity. 

What if it were not that way? What if the word “politician” stirred in us a sense of near-reverence because we knew that only the most noble among us could achieve the support necessary to gain office? What if all our leaders, while imperfect, were expected to respect us, our liberty and property, and the offices in which they serve? What if we could take for granted that our leaders were decent and honorable public servants, dedicated to executing their responsibilities without abusing their power? What if we could know that no leader of any political party would consider using the organs of government for political purposes, to constrict the liberty of political opponents or to hide the truth from the press or populace? What if our leaders were courteous? What if no leader would misrepresent or unfairly vilify his or her political opponents or fellow Americans? What if our leaders would not manipulate truth, to deceive us, no matter what advantage that could garner?

Americans could have all that if we wanted it or if we wanted it enough. We can vote and support candidates. We could vote for and support people of honor and refuse to support those who act unscrupulously. That sounds simple enough. But the truth is, we do not want it, or we do not want it enough. If we wanted it, we would  insist on it. We would vote for it. And we would have it. We would have honest government. That sounds simple enough. But what does that entail?

Getting honest government would require being able to recognize and appreciate virtue. It would mean that we insist that politicians exhibit honorable behavior, regardless of party or positions. We know people make mistakes. We do not have to be unforgiving and judgmental or demand the impossible. We just need to know the difference between what is virtuous and what is not and that we favor the former. That might be inconvenient when we learn that a political leader we like does not measure up. But that would not happen as often because politicians would know we would not tolerate it. Too often we find ourselves choosing between unsuitable candidates for office. If we could count on honor among our candidates, we would feel a lot better about our choices.

Knowing right from wrong requires being taught right from wrong or learning right from wrong from experience. It takes effort to instill and maintain an appreciation for integrity in a population. Our society is divided. We do not agree on what is right or even on what comprises a successful society. We are disadvantaged in seeking good, because we can not define it. But having a law in a republic implies that the people who elected those who enacted the law approve that law or do not disapprove strongly enough to change it. Setting aside the cases of civil disobedience, we generally consider it wrong to knowingly break the law for personal advantage.

If we, as a people, do not want scandals such as “Fast and Furious,” Benghazi, or the IRS scandal, we do not have to put up with those things. But we do have to know those things are wrong. We have to understand the value of human life and the rights of our citizens. We have to value truth.

To get honest government, we would need to be educated and informed and able to critically think. We have to know what’s going on in order to hold public servants accountable, that is, to make them public servants. We would have to know what is true, not just what we heard somewhere or want to believe. We would have to know how to tell the relevant from the irrelevant and how to analyze an argument. Otherwise, we would remain manipulable and gullible, and we would keep electing too many leaders who do not respect us.

Most importantly, to achieve honest government, we would have to produce more people of character. That means that more of us would have to develop the traits we would like to be able to take for granted in politicians. Those are the traits we should encourage in the next generation.

Where we have honest representatives, it is because people who value honesty put them in office. Where the constituency requires honor in public servants and wants integrity more than the perceived benefits of corrupt practices, the parties look for honor in the candidates they present for public office. The parties can find candidates with those characteristics only from among the constituency itself. The Manhattan woman is right. Dishonest people will not produce honest leaders. If we want honest leaders, we must strive to be honest ourselves. We should be able to say, without evoking laughter, “I expect the president to be law-abiding.” Is that too much to ask of a president? Is it too much to ask of ourselves?

The interview: