10/28/2012 11:44 am ET Updated Dec 28, 2012

Say What You Mean and Do What You Say

As Barack Obama and Mitt Romney near the dramatic finish line of an interminable presidential campaign, I've been remembering the soft voice of my mentor.

"In life," that voice used to say, "character counts."

"The betrayal of trust," that voice would suggest, "almost always ruins a friendship."

These wise statements are not empty words. I first heard them and took them to heart as a young anthropologist conducting research in an isolated corner of the Republic of Niger in West Africa.

In that poor and desolate part of the world, an old man, Adamu Jenitongo, had asked me to "sit" with him to learn about traditional healing. When I began to learn from him, he set the moral compass of our relationship.

"If you want to learn about healing and power," he said, "you and I have to create a relationship of trust. If your character is clean, our trust will grow strong. If your character is dirty, our trust will be betrayed and our relationship will be broken. In time, I will know the depth of your character which will tell me if we should move forward together."

"I hope that will be the case," I said.

"In everything you do," he said pointing his finger at me, "remember this: 'Say what you mean and do what you say.' "If you do that," he continued, "people will know who you are and will trust you to heal them."

Thinking back to that prophetic lesson, I wonder whether President Obama or Gov. Romney can heal a dysfunctional political system that has torn to shreds the moral fabric of our society. Beyond all the rhetoric, the talking points and the manicured sets of statistical data, beyond the messaging that has been contoured to this or that focus group, do these men say what they mean and do what they say?

While President Obama has pursued policies that have often disappointed and sometimes outraged his followers, he has demonstrated a steady hand in both domestic and foreign affairs. Whether you agree or disagree with his policies, he has been consistent and resolute. When he has had to make hard decisions that have affected the lives of people he has wisely relied on the advice of a wide range of advisers. In the end, though, he alone has had to make tough choices and accept moral responsibility for their consequences. Before he was president Mr. Obama said that given the right set of circumstances, he'd go after Osama bin Laden. When those circumstances presented themselves last year, President Obama made the decision to "take out" the world's most wanted man. Before making the decision, he didn't call for a vote of his advisers or commission of survey that would predict that decision's political consequences. Instead, he looked deeply into his being and risked his presidency to do the right thing. That is saying what you mean and doing what you say.

Governor Romney is a good man but we can only speculate how he might have handled the Osama bin Laden situation. We do know that in terms of policy positions, he has been endlessly inconsistent -- for and against abortion, first against deadlines for troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and then for the deadlines, first against the auto bailout and then claiming some credit for Detroit's economic comeback.

Beyond the blather that is commonplace in most political campaigns, Governor Romney has not presented a set of coherent philosophical principles that would give us some insight into how he would make decisions, especially those hard choices he would have to make in the in the presidency's lonely zone. What kind of man is Governor Romney? Is he resolute? Is he principled? Does he have the courage to make life or death decisions? In short has he demonstrated the character to be our president?

My mentor used to say: "You must always listen to what a person says, but pay special attention to what he or she does." A true test of a person's character, he taught me, is whether he or she stands up for what is right even when doing so risks the displeasure of friends and allies. A person fails the test if he or she is expedient -- a choice that avoids the lonely discomforts of the unpopular path.

Based on the public record, my mentor would rate President Obama as a man of principle who speaks with one mouth and one heart. He would rate Governor Romney as an expedient man who speaks with two mouths and two hearts.

"You can never trust a man who speaks with two mouths and two hearts," my mentor taught me long ago. "Such a man," he told me, "destroys trust and harmony. Such a man should never become a healer" -- or, I would add, a president.