I saw a documentary last weekend about John F. Kennedy Jr. and the primary goal that he began to pursue in his adult life. He told a close friend that he knew he was expected to be a “great person,” someone who would do important things and maybe even lead the country. But, he added, he believed the harder challenge in life might be trying to be a good person, someone who treated other people with kindness and was faithful to his family.
What struck me about JFK Jr.’s hope was how foreign the concept seems to be in either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton’s thinking, but how common the sentiment is among everyone else I know or meet covering politics. We try to teach our kids to be good people. We aspire to it ourselves, too, even if we often fail. At some point, we used to also expect the same thing of our leaders.
But in 2016, we’re choosing between two candidates who may pass for “great people,” but it’s hard to say that either one of them is a good person. And that’s a terrible thing for the future leader of our country.
Donald Trump has achieved great financial success. But over the course of his campaign, he has lashed out at people publicly in a way most people would never contemplate, even in private. He has insulted the grieving mother of an Army veteran. He impugned the integrity of a judge for the sole reason that his parents were Mexican immigrants. He insulted Mika Brzezinski as “neurotic and not very bright” and suggested to his 11 million Twitter followers that she was having an affair with her co-worker.
When a mother of four was murdered in Chicago, Trump’s message to the country was not one of sympathy, but I-told-you-so. “Just what I have been saying. African-Americans will VOTE TRUMP!” he tweeted. Divorce all of these things from the presidential campaign and pretend they came from anyone but Trump, and you’re left with the actions of a terrible person.
The news is better, but not much, on the Democratic side. Hillary Clinton may have stayed away from name calling and insults, but she has too often refused to show the American people that she is capable of doing the right thing, or even understanding what that is, in a series of tests that have been put in front of her.
Although she has obliquely apologized for her email setup as secretary of State, she has never simply described what happened and why. After she said all of her relevant emails had been turned over to the FBI, they have continued to pop up anew.
When it comes to the Clinton Foundation, any objective person can see the opportunity for donors to curry access and favors with Clinton by supporting her charity. But Clinton’s defense seems to be that the people who gave millions to influence her decisions just didn’t get their money’s worth. On the question of cutting ties to the foundation to prevent any future appearance of impropriety, which a chorus of usually friendly voices has urged her to do, the Clinton campaign’s insulting response has been that anyone who sees a conflict of interest doesn’t want to cure AIDS in children.
Being great isn’t the same thing as being good and voters know the difference. A recent NBC News/SurveyMonkey tracking poll showed that 11 percent of Americans consider Clinton honest and trustworthy. The same poll showed that 17 percent believe that Trump has the personality and temperament to serve as president.
It’s startling and disappointing to see people most of us wouldn’t want our own kids to emulate on the cusp of becoming the next president, but it’s possible we’re only getting the choices that we deserve with the circus that we’ve allowed the nominating process to become.
If JFK Jr. had lived, it’s entirely possible he would be running for president this year instead of Clinton. Would the political system have rewarded him if he had achieved his goal of being good before he tried to be great? We’ll never know. But it was wonderful, even for a moment, to hear someone who aspired to public life also saying that the hard work of being good might be more important than the honor of being great instead.
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.