This quote takes a bit of parsing, but the point Adams makes is good:
Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right, from the frame of their nature, to knowledge, as their great Creator, who does nothing in vain, has given them understandings, and a desire to know; but besides this, they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge; I mean, of the characters and conduct of their rulers.--John Adams(Quote courtesy of The Federalist's "Founders Quote Daily")
The Clinton presidency engendered (albeit unintentionally) a worthwhile debate on whether or not character matters in a president. Unfortunately, while most people's votes are influenced by the character of the candidate, ideological and partisan considerations trump character considerations for the majority of us.
The record of history shows consistently that the character of the leaders in due course becomes the character of the majority of the people being led (the books of Chronicles and Kings in the Bible are full of good examples of this phenomenon). This is especially true in nations where the people have little or no real influence over who their leaders are.
In countries where the people exercise moderate to significant control over who their leaders will be, there is a chance to reverse the flow -- a chance for the character of the majority of the people to become the character of the leaders. It can only happen, though, if the people decide in their hearts that, regardless of ideology, they will not allow a person of low character to lead them.
If the people neglect this responsibility, government at all levels becomes corrupt, because by its very nature government attracts people of low character.
As corruption (of all kinds, from the barely noticeable to the egregious) sets in, once again we see that over time the character of the leaders becomes the character of the people. This partly due to the fact that the government (as we see it in the U.S. today) uses laws and the bully pulpit of the mass media to encourage certain attitudes and behaviors and to discourage others. It is also due to the fact that our leaders (especially at the national level) are presented to us (especially by the leaders' respective political parties) as role models. The causes championed by our leaders -- and the moral lapses that go unpunished -- have a very real potential to influence the character of the people, especially that of the younger generations.
My examples have focused on the national/federal level of government, but these lessons must be applied to every other level of government as well -- state, county, municipal. In the U.S., because of our (constitutionally incorrect) notion that power should be exercised through the central government, we tend to make little or no effort to scrutinize the character of those we vote for at the lower levels of government -- if we vote at all in those elections. The mischief that occurs at these levels of government tends to occur "below the radar", and, like cancer, once it is discovered it is often too difficult to root out.
There are many other aspects to this subject that I may cover at another time, but I hope that I've made my point -- the character of our leaders really does matter. Our respect for this truth must override ideology and party affiliation when we vote, or else our country and our culture will suffer.