It May Not Build Character, but Politics Can Reveal Character

By Mark Shields

December 14, 2019 4 min read

First, an anecdote circulating about the most courageously candid staff person in the White House allegedly speaking to President Donald J Trump: "Mr. President, you're coming across as mean-spirited, abusive and so unlikable that people frankly do not want to work for you. Sir, in all due respect, you have to make some immediate changes." President Trump to courageously candid staffer: "I agree. You're fired."

This story, for some reason, reminds me of the late U.S. Rep. Jack Kemp, the conservative Republican whose contagious optimism went a long way putting a smiling face on what had previously been dour and dyspeptic American conservatism. When Kemp ran, unsuccessfully, for the 1988 Republican presidential nomination, that year's GOP campaign featured much rhetoric about the candidates' devotion to pro-family issues from men whose private conduct very often did not match their pious, public posturing.

But not Kemp who, let it be noted, was a more devoted father than he was a determined office seeker. On virtually every fall weekend, before the crucial Iowa and New Hampshire contests, Kemp, much to the frustration of his campaign strategists, left the campaign trail to come home to suburban Maryland in order to see his son play football for Winston Churchill High School. What is true of sports is also true of political campaigns: Neither really builds character, but both reveal character.

Four years earlier at the Republican National Convention, a GOP delegate sought unanimous consent to change the party platform language to read the "Democrat Party" instead of the "Democratic Party."

One party leader rose to object, pointing out that such language would be "an insult to our Democratic friends." You guessed it; that Republican leader was Jack Kemp.

A couple of decades later, in 2007, then-Republican President George W. Bush surprisingly visited the annual retreat of House Democrats, who had a new majority, in Williamsburg, Virginia. Acknowledging his tendency to mispronounce the name of his hosts' party as "Democrat," a term many Democrats saw as an intended slur, Bush said, "I appreciate your inviting the head of the Republic Party." He then went on to ask the "Democratic Party" to help him meet the mounting challenges of funding Social Security and Medicare.

Make no mistake; the "ic" factor — that is, dropping the last syllable of the adjective "Democratic" and substituting instead the noun "Democrat" ungrammatically before party or candidate or convention name, is intended by partisans to show contempt or hostility. It is roughly the political equivalent of referring to someone who is Catholic as a member of "the Church of Rome" or someone who is Jewish as being of "the Hebraic persuasion." Supporting the use of "Democratic" and not "Democrat" in the 2008 party platform, then-GOP Chairman Haley Barbour asserted simply, "we probably should use what the actual name is."

But, as you have probably noticed, one leading Republican, President Donald Trump, repeatedly disdains the opposition by invariably tweeting — and needling — the "Democrat Party." Since 1988, exactly one Republican presidential nominee — George W. Bush (who openly asked for the help of the "Democratic Party") — has once won a majority of the nation's popular vote. Trump would do well to take heed.

To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at

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