What John Kasich's hug tells us about his character

Story highlights

  • Jay Parini: Kasich's hug of supporter, empathy, unwillingness to stoop to rancor and attacks show a character missing among candidates
  • He says if he were a Republican (he is not), he'd favor Kasich, who he could see as President

Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont and is the author of "Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)This has been a dismal political season by any calculation, with rancor and bickering on both sides of the aisle, and with a growing sense of hopelessness among the people who will be called upon to cast votes in November for president of the United States.

I should speak for myself: I feel that hopelessness. It upsets me to see Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders picking at each other. (At a recent event, Clinton was booed, for example, when she attacked Sanders as "not really a Democrat.") They should be well above this sort of petty behavior, and it's hurting them both. I'm also -- who wouldn't be? -- upset by the GOP primary battles, which have descended to lows almost unimaginable on a national stage.
Jay Parini
Can we really have watched grown men -- and one woman -- ridiculing each other on stage before millions of television viewers in those so-called debates? Did one of them actually criticize his peers because of her looks? Did a couple of them shout "Liar!" in public?
    This is distressing in part because the young people of America deserve better from their elders, who should model decent, civilized discussion.
    We expect a lot from presidents, and one of the things we most expect is a sense of dignity. (Obama has been wonderfully dignified, in my view, refusing to descend to name-calling -- even when he has been called some of the worst names in the book of insults.) In times of great stress, we look to the person in the White House to speak with balance and coherence, without pettiness or smallness of character.
    Character matters. It's what made our greatest presidents stand out in times of terrible stress or national division, as during the Civil War or the attack on Pearl Harbor.
    So we watch the candidates closely, looking for signs of character.
    Kasich's emotional connection with supporters
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    For me, one of the most vivid moments in recent debates was in South Carolina on February 14, when John Kasich winced as he listened to Donald Trump and others attack each other like kids in an elementary schoolyard. He said, with notable composure: "What I've been watching here, this back and forth, and these attacks, some of them are personal. I think we're fixing to lose the election to Hillary Clinton if we don't stop this..."
    He went on to suggest taking "all the negative comments down from television."
    A few days later, at a town hall-style meeting, Kasich spoke emphatically about our very human need for community. "The glue of America is right here in the room, in our communities and families," he said.
    He noted that sometimes you have to celebrate the success of others, and sometimes you have to cry with them.
    At one campaign event this week, Kasich demonstrated this kind of empathy with a young supporter who bravely talked about his recent losses, his problems. Kasich walked toward him, put his arms around him and offered comfort. This is certainly among the small handful of moving moments we've seen so far on the campaign trail.
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    I'm not a Republican, but if I were, I'd be running into the arms of John Kasich. From the outset, he has struck me as a man of integrity, intelligence and compassion. He speaks well -- not the stumbling self-referential banter that Trump spews almost nonstop. Not the legalistic and grating speeches that Ted Cruz makes. Not Marco Rubio's canned and superficial sound bites. Not Ben Carson's loud, empty sighs.
    Kasich is someone I could see as president, although I find a number of his actual policy ideas troubling.
    Perhaps not surprisingly, he's all about cutting taxes for the wealthy and passing laws that would help businesses, including large corporations. (He used to work for Lehman Brothers, so he has strong ties to Wall Street.) He has questioned our current system for campaign financing, saying that that "a handful of billionaires should not decide who is President." And yet he has been unwilling to come right out and criticize Citizens United, the Supreme Court case that opened the floodgates to dark money -- money from hidden sources.
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    Not unlike most of his peers, including Clinton and Trump, Kasich has wavered on the Iraq War, as well. At first he was all in, saying in 2002: "We should go to war with Iraq. "More recently he has backed away from that, although without much passion.
    Kasich takes a lot of credit for Ohio's economic successes in recent years, and no doubt some of this is deserved; but analysts on the ground in Ohio have disputed his claims to having done anything much to help Ohioans, and there is no consensus on his record of achievement as governor.
    Nevertheless, Kasich has been the only candidate among the GOP hopefuls who has addressed the human need for community and shown a genuine capacity to empathize with others. He has argued, quite rightly, that a president should be a person with a profound sense of compassion, and he has modeled that empathy on the campaign trail in touching ways.
    Republicans should take note, and they should get behind the one candidate they have who could actually sit in the Oval Office with dignity.