On character and grace
by Jamison Koehler on January 4, 2021
One of the nicest things anyone ever said about me came from a woman many years ago on the occasion of her retirement from the federal government. She recalled that whenever she poked her head into my office, I would stop whatever I was doing, get up from my desk and greet her at the door. She said this was particularly noteworthy considering that we were at opposite ends of our country’s skewed social hierarchy: I was head of the office and she was a clerk-typist. I was a man and she was a woman. I was white and she was black. I was young and she was old.
This was one of the best compliments I have ever received. I wish my mother had been present to hear it.
I thought of this self-congratulatory thing recently upon seeing yet another photograph of Donald Trump sitting at the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office – self-satisfied smile with thumbs up — as other people stand around him.
There is no question that Trump lacks basic manners. Recall Trump emerging from the limousine before his inauguration and lumbering toward the door, leaving the Obamas to attend to Melania. There is also the photograph of Trump holding an umbrella over himself, exposing his wife walking next to him to the rain. Someone on the internet juxtaposed this photograph with one of President Obama holding an umbrella over two staff members while he himself – the President of the United States — got wet.
If manners can be taught, what does it say about the character of a man who allows himself to be photographed seated while others – including heads of state from other countries — are left standing around him in supplicating positions? A man who pushes his way past the prime minister of Montenegro so that he can take center stage for a photograph?
Character evidence is an anomalous area of the law. It is, for example, the one instance in which the rules of evidence actually encourage the introduction of hearsay.
Special treatment of character evidence in a criminal case is based on the longstanding recognition that – notwithstanding the emotional growth we see portrayed again and again in movies and on TV – a person’s character tends toward immutability. The special treatment acknowledges that circumstantial evidence pertaining to someone’s personality could in fact be a good indication as to how that person may have acted on the day in question.
In Trump’s case, his lack of character is reflected in more than his inability to tell the truth or remain faithful to his wife. It is more than the feelings of deep-seated insecurity that are suggested by his need to be seated and at the center of every photograph when everyone already knows that he is the most powerful man on Earth.
The recent recording of Trump’s phone conversation with the Georgia Secretary of State only confirms what we already know about Trump’s character. In fact, that he learned nothing from his phone call with the Ukrainian prime minister and that he has no problem acting like a mob boss suggests that Trump’s problems go beyond a mere lack of manners or character.
The man is a sociopath. He does not learn. He has no shame. He is driven only by immediate self-interest.