Oh, the context of it all. "I want individuals to have their own insurance," GOP presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney said recently in a speech before the Nashua, N.H., Chamber of Commerce. "That means the insurance company will have an incentive to keep you healthy. It also means if you don't like what they do, you can fire them. I like being able to fire people who provide services to me."

Oh, the context of it all.


"I want individuals to have their own insurance," GOP presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney said recently in a speech before the Nashua, N.H., Chamber of Commerce. "That means the insurance company will have an incentive to keep you healthy. It also means if you don't like what they do, you can fire them. I like being able to fire people who provide services to me."


A couple of Romney's opponents - the Republican ones, not the Democratic one - immediately seized on the remark, focusing on one particular part of it: "I like being able to fire people." Texas Gov. Rick Perry even made it the ring tone on his cellphone. It's what makes Romney "unelectable," said another.


That was unfair, because clearly Romney's words had been taken out of context. He was talking about insurance companies and consumer choice, not factory workers.


Naturally, Romney didn't appreciate that kind of treatment, later telling a reporter: "Things can always be taken out of context. I understand that. That's what the Obama people do."


Perhaps that is so. But apparently it's also what the Romney people do.


Take, for example, the TV advertisement the Romney campaign aired last November in New Hampshire that shared a clip of President Barack Obama saying, "If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose." With that as the voice-over, the following phrases scrolled across the screen: "Greatest Jobs Crisis Since Great Depression," "Record Home Foreclosures" and "Record National Debt."


The implication, of course, was that Obama wants to avoid talking about his economic record because he believes it will spell defeat in 2012. What the ad didn't quite make clear was that the remarks came from a 2008 speech in which candidate Obama was not speaking about his own positions but quoting a strategist with John McCain's campaign. The full quote was thus: "Even as we face the most serious economic crisis of our time, even as you are worried about keeping your jobs or paying your bills or staying in your homes, my opponent's campaign announced earlier this month that they want to 'turn the page' on the discussion about our economy so they can spend the final weeks of this election attacking me instead. ... Sen. McCain's campaign actually said, and I quote, 'If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose.'" (And the Republican McCain would lose a few of weeks later.)


The White House's economic performance is fair game, but talk about taking words out of context. So much so that the Pulitzer Prize-winning PolitiFact.com, which exists to ferret out the facts from the falsehoods in statements on the stump and hold candidates accountable accordingly, gave Romney's ad its "Pants on Fire" rating, which put it in the category of a lie. Yet the Romney campaign would not quite back down from it, insisting that Obama had also mischaracterized the McCain campaign's position. If so, well, two wrongs don't make a right.


It goes to personal character, which as we have so painfully learned over the years, may be the most important factor in choosing any president.


No doubt Romney would tell you that he is a man of high integrity. He even addressed "moral responsibility" in the above advertisement, though in reference to government spending. Surely, then, he is familiar with the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." If he can't apply that courtesy to others, then he shouldn't expect others to apply that courtesy to him. If he becomes president, he'll discover that he doesn't get to have it both ways.


This will be a marathon campaign. Every last one of these candidates is human, and there will be more than a few opportunities during many a long and exhausting day for those on both sides to make unforced errors. Rare and perhaps nonexistent is the perfectly consistent candidate, the one who never flip-flops on anything. Few of us haven't changed our minds about something. But there is a world of difference between innocent mistakes and purposeful deceit. Those who wish to enjoy the trust of a nation of more than 300 million people should insist that their campaigns do their utmost to avoid the latter.


Journal Star of Peoria, Ill.