We've told by publicists and pundits--and there's a fine line between them--that character doesn't count. Let the president frolic as long as it doesn't interfere with his job.

Now the voters of New Hampshire tell us that possessing character is the president's job.

The same pundits who sold off personal moral behavior at deep discount last winter now emerge from the New England snows to tell us what the pope and the great Unpolled and Unreported Majority have known for a long time: what mattered most to voters was finding a candidate of unshakeable character, willing to stand up for his convictions.

President Clinton can retire the Irony Prize for bequeathing to the nation a deep longing for honesty and decency in the Oval Office.

Bill Clinton has been searching desperately for a legacy, for an accomplishment he could claim as uniquely and completely his own. And now it has emerged, as unambiguous in its message as the groundhog's shadowed prediction of more winter ahead.

President Clinton can retire the Irony Prize for bequeathing to the nation a deep longing for honesty and decency in the Oval Office. He has left us the same thing Punxsutawney Phil does, a shadow on the landscape rather than a statue in the public square.

And so the Rediscovery of Character can replace the loss of the Mars Explorer as the story that most embarrassed the experts during the millennial season. Joining the cohort that includes the designers of the Edsel and the brewers of New Coke are the spinners who invented the notion that ethics and morality are irrelevant in public life.

The biggest winner in all this, as the newsmagazines love to dictate, may be the pope. John Paul II has sensed the needs of a weary and worn-down world for some time now. While many Catholics and others have wondered at his emphasis on canonizing saints, it now turns out that good example writ large is exactly what people want at this time in history.

The New Hampshire primary results, however, make goodness not only attractive but relevant to everyday life in a brand new century. The pope, almost alone among world figures, has underscored the dynamic model of the spiritual person over that of the economic person as central to human progress. The individual pursuing honor may turn out to be more influential than the impersonal, and ethically neutral, mass movement in changing the world for the better. As long as we're sinners, the pope has reminded us, we'll be in need of saints to light our ways and to deepen our courage in facing life.

The roots of the word "character" are instructive. It comes from "kharassein," which means to brand or to sharpen. It is related to "kharax," which means a pointed stake. In its family of meaning, we find to sharpen, to notch, to carve. It's a distant relative to the Old English "grit."

Character may indeed have rough edges; that's why we refer to those who lack it as jellyfish. It's akin to the spiritual character that sacraments like baptism and confimation, according to Catholic teaching, engrave on our souls.

Character, in a world of broken lances and dulled swords, is a pointed stake, sharp enough to remind us that men without a conscience are also, in the long run, men without a country. Character is the pointed stake of the beam that bears the weight of what we build out of fidelity, love, and truth in our lives.

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