09/30/2012 04:56 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2012

Draw a Line. Don't Cross It.

Principles are central to human behavior. "Unprincipled" is one of the harshest accusations one person can make about another. Principles are also central to government and politics. Parties and public official we hope will conduct themselves according to principles that guide their beliefs and actions. Principles are the basis for policies, policies the basis for programs. If the principles are wrong or absent, the policies and programs that result will be flawed or even destructive.

Most political debate centers on whether a particular government program -- extending from Social Security to environmental protection to weapons system -- is right or wrong, good or bad. Occasionally, the policies that created those programs are debated also. But the principles that led to both policy and program are often assumed or taken for granted.

A debate question for presidential candidates: What are the principles that guide your behavior and decisions? What are your fundamental beliefs and what shaped them? When faced with a tough decision, what convictions guide your choice? What is more important to you than winning an election or holding an office -- even the presidency?

The best advice I ever received came from a distinguished Senator and great American. He said: Draw a line. Don't cross it. He meant: Examine your soul and identify what principles you hold, what is more important to you, than holding an office. Never sacrifice those principles, otherwise you are a hollow man. If you sacrifice one principle for ambition, you will sacrifice them all.

This inner compass is the theme of John Kennedy's book Profiles in Courage that studies the public lives of a number of figures who took a principled stand, a stand that was against their self-interest and that cost them public office. Many people, especially young people, believe these kinds of choices, between doing what is right or doing what is expedient, occur frequently in politics. They do occur, but not very often. The question is whether, when such a choice occurs, you follow your principles and refuse to cross the line or whether you take the easy path that protects your political career and self-interest.

Perhaps the debate question should be: Describe one instance where you chose to do what you knew to be right but that cost you politically or personally.

Life is difficult. Every day we all seek to achieve our objectives by adjusting, shifting, subtly compromising to get where we want to go. There is nothing wrong with that. That's called going along to get along. And personal errors and failures are common to us all. Bending is necessary. Bending too far and too often leads to a broken spine.

Public service operates on a higher plane. It involves a public trust. The public servant holds the public's interest in trust. We trust our elected and appointed officials to do what is right, what is in the interest of our nation and all its citizens, even when acting according to that principle will cost them personally or even drive them from office.

Whether consciously or not, in deciding on a president we are really trying to decide who will protect our trust, the public trust, by standing on principle when the chips are down. A candidate who shapes his or her policies and programs according to the pressures from interest groups, ideological factions, or wealthy individuals will more likely than not cross the line of principle when confronted with the harsh choices that eventually occur.