An article by David Brooks on the International New York Times published on 29 April 2015 raises some provocative issues regarding Hillary Clinton’s image as a presidential candidate. A poll quoted by Brooks says that 60% of those polled think Hillary has strong leadership qualities; yet 61% say that she is not honest and trustworthy. So, would you vote for someone who is a strong leader but should not be trusted? The answer for many people is “yes!” We will see if it is “yes” for the majority of the voters, but even if it’s not, still it is important to look at how come so many people will often choose candidates, all over the world, not just in America, who may have strong leadership qualities but low moral values.

An explanation worthy of attention is that people like candidates who personify certain values that are treasured by that culture. I’m not saying that Americans will vote for candidates who are not honest and trustworthy… I am saying that they will vote for someone who is perceived as being a strong leader, according to the American culture’s definition of “strong leadership.” The same is true for every culture in the world: people will pick those candidates that model each culture’s most treasured values.

In the US, people do frown at politicians who are not honest and trustworthy; but there are other personal traits that are actually considered to be more important than honesty, such as being decisive, assertive and bold. There is also a collective notion in the US (and elsewhere) that “all politicians are dishonest and not trustworthy.” The rationale then is that, since they’re all dishonest, who would you pick? The ones who model our most treasured values, such as assertiveness, boldness and decisiveness.

Towards the end of his article, Brooks mentioned other iconic Anglo-Saxon leaders, like Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt and George Washington. The latter is widely regarded as being an honest and trustworthy person, but you cannot say the same about Churchill and Teddy Roosevelt: their image, in spite of all the benefit received from positive propaganda over the years, is still closer to the controversy surrounding Hillary Clinton.

Churchill is still regarded as an icon of courage and endurance. It seems that, the more the years go by, the more positive his image becomes. Boris Johnson, the flamboyant London Mayor, just launched a book praising Churchill again. People are quick to forget that this was the man who refused to receive Gandhi when the Indian leader came to visit London on a peace mission, dismissing him as “a vagabond dressed in loin cloth;” who first ordered the bombing of civilians during World War II, “to break the German people’s spirit and turn them against their leaders.” As it turns out, history is always written by the winning side, so the version that has been most widely disseminated is that the Nazis were the ones bombing England civilians to break their spirit; little coverage has been given to the fact that this happened as a reaction to what Churchill had started. I am not trying to defend the Nazis here; I am pointing out that during a war there is hardly any side that can claim moral high ground, whichever the war. The winning side praises their heroes, the ones who are consistent with their culture’s values; and quickly sweeps under the rug those traits that would expose that hero’s darker side.

Churchill will continue to be praised for his assertiveness, his decisiveness and his resilience. He will not be remembered for being an arrogant, prejudiced and heartless S.O.B., which he also was. Certainly in England and in the US people do not want to look at the darker side of Winston, just as they prefer not to dwell on the darker side of other leaders like, for instance, Lincoln or Kennedy.

Every culture suffers from the same malady: they desperately seek and promote leaders who are mirrors of their most treasured values; they overlook the negative aspects of those leaders; people just do not want to see that. For any leader, then, the key to success will be to highlight the desired traits and hide the undesirable ones. The traits will be different, from culture to culture.

In Germany, political leaders must show that they value order, structure and discipline, more than anything else. In Scandinavia they must show that they care for others and that they can also be vulnerable, despite holding powerful positions. In Latin America they need to demonstrate that they can exercise power with force, if necessary, but they must also show kindness to the less privileged. In most cultures all over the world, perhaps in all of them, it gives me personal pain to acknowledge, honesty and trustworthiness are not at the top of the list of political leaders’ desired traits, but rather a bit further down. They are “nice to have’s”, but not conditions to run for office.

Many years ago, an American Political Sciences professor, a staunch Republican, told me that the US political system was very consistent over the years: whoever managed to get the greater financial support, won every election for President. He told me that in the 1970’s and he’s been right ever since, from Nixon to Obama. And how do you get financial support? By portraying the culture’s most treasured traits and sweeping your dark side under the rug. It will happen again.