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ISSUES

What I've Learned : 'Who You Are Is More Important Than What You Are'

August 01, 1994| Interviewed for The Times by James Blair. and

TOM SELLECK

Actor and national spokesman, along with former Texas Rep. Barbara Jordan, for the Character Counts Coalition.

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We've been arguing for 30-some years in this country about whose values are correct and we haven't even gotten to the really tough part , which is how to instill these values in our young people without getting heavy-handed about it. We're still at the stage of granting permission that it's OK to talk about (ethics and values).

You know, adults talk differently if they think a kid is listening. What they've got to realize is that kids are listening all the time. Double standards don't fly. Kids see through that. You have to face the fact that who you are is more important than what you are; and how and why you do something is as important as what you do.

I've got a 26-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter. I was very fortunate to have been raised by parents who weren't of the "Do as I say, not as I do" school. Having learned that lesson from my parents I learned it even more through my kids. When you talk about ethics, you can't preach to somebody else, "I'm perfect, (but) you better work on yourself."

Getting involved in the Character Counts Coalition also seemed a natural progression of my concern for ethics in journalism. It's always a little assaultive when you see your civil rights change when you become a "public figure."

What attracted me to the Coalition was that the people and groups supporting it were so diverse. Barbara Jordan was going to be the national spokesperson and they wanted me also. Now, Barbara's a hero of mine and I'm pretty sure she and I don't always vote alike. And the board has people like (former Reagan Education Secretary) Bill Bennett and (Head of the Children's Defense Fund) Marian Wright Edelman. Those aren't just bumper stickers, they're real people. But whatever "bumper sticker" value they carry shows diversity and it shows consensus. That's the only effective way to approach the whole character issue.

The thing I always add when I talk to kids or anyone else about the intimidating subject of ethics is that I fail to reach my standards every day. And if I did reach my standards then they may not have been set high enough. We're talking about setting goals for the kind of person we strive to be.

This is a grass-roots thing. Character is going to be taught one individual to another, hopefully by parents to their children; but if not a parent then a teacher or a coach or a mentor of some kind. We can't have a lost generation of kids or else we'll have a lost generation of adults.

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