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Essay: The Character Issue: Enough Already

9 minute read
Walter Shapiro

The day before the presidential balloting at the 1960 Democratic Convention, the sentimental favorite, Adlai Stevenson, came to the floor for the first time as an Illinois delegate. Just the sight of Stevenson’s bald pate — that perfect egghead symbol — triggered a raucous demonstration and chants of “We Want Adlai,” and the reluctant candidate was invited to address the convention. Stevenson fought his way through the bedlam for twelve minutes before he finally reached the rostrum. “I know whom you are going to nominate,” Stevenson told the cheering delegates. “It will be the last survivor.”

That remark can serve as a capsule description of the 1988 presidential race. In its obsession with character issues, the campaign so far has been as brutal as a fraternity rush on a football campus: one blackball, and you are forever barred from consideration. If political insiders have been blindsided by this rush to moral judgment, imagine the plight of a social-studies teacher trying to explain the dwindling presidential field to a class of innocent nine-year-olds. Plagiarism may be easily equated with copying from someone else’s paper, but how do you handle the ABCs of adultery, Bimini and cashiered campaign managers?

Few tears should be shed for Gary Hart and Joseph Biden. Both these dropout Democrats flunked the cherry-tree test for would-be Presidents: they lied, and they were found out. But what remains troubling is the residue of the hang- them-high hysteria that drove them from the race. Hart and Biden were judged not only on their deeds but also on the so-called character flaws that their actions were said to reveal.

% As a result, the 1988 campaign has been disfigured by paparazzi politics and pop psychology. Once a personal subject is broached, it becomes fair game for future prying. The Douglas Ginsburg Supreme Court fiasco produced a great American smoke-out: every candidate was hit with the question of whether he had ever smoked marijuana, and Albert Gore and Bruce Babbitt quickly conceded that they had.

The press feels that it has no choice but to keep on asking invasive questions like these and investigate leaks from rival campaigns or else be accused of a double standard that brutally punished Hart and Biden and now winks at the foibles of others. So political reporters have been transformed into Character Cops, walking the beat and twirling their nightsticks, ready to protect the voters from any personality flaw that would not fit into a Parson Weems biography. In recent weeks their labors have yielded a police blotter of peccadilloes all served up in the name of illuminating character. Is the republic stronger because the voters now know that Pat Robertson’s wife was pregnant when the couple were married in 1954? Does Jesse Jackson’s refusal to answer questions about adultery make him a Fifth Amendment philanderer? Will the nation get better leaders by forcing candidates to have a “true confessions” footnote on their resumes?

This current fixation on the hidden life histories of the candidates has its roots in a pathbreaking 1972 study by Political Scientist James David Barber titled The Presidential Character. As Barber argued, “To understand . . . what potential Presidents might do, the first need is to see the man whole . . . as a human being like the rest of us, a person trying to cope with a difficult environment. To that task he brings his own character, his own view of the world, his own political style.”

Barber’s contention that presidential behavior could be roughly predicted from psychological character and interpretive biography meshed perfectly with the liberal obsession with Richard Nixon’s psyche in the wake of Watergate. Character was fate, and all the talk of a “new Nixon” had been merely media hype. The sudden rise of Jimmy Carter in 1976 only accentuated the belief that political reporters should play personality police. Carter had virtually won the Democratic nomination before the first cracks began to appear in his smiling veneer of peanut farmer and nuclear engineer. His later blemished presidency only added urgency to the voter lament, “If only we had known more sooner, we might have chosen differently.”

Viewed in the abstract, Barber’s theory is right: character is potentially far more revealing than 30-second television spots, staff-written speeches, carefully scripted candidate debates, wildly exaggerated campaign gaffes and all the other hoopla and hysteria of a two-year presidential race. Not even the most intricately conceived six-part hypothetical question can possibly anticipate most of the problems that will confront a new President in 1989. From Quemoy and Matsu in 1960 to the debate over whether the U.S. should move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in 1984, campaign “issues” have tended to be more preposterous than predictive. Moreover, in theory, politicians who pursue high office and parade their lives and families like bumper stickers have little valid claim to privacy. In a nuclear age, we are entrusting the occupant of the White House with our lives; are we not entitled to a little psychic striptease in return? These arguments for let-it-all-hang- out personality politics are persuasive until one mulls our tendency to confuse psychodrama with psychology, rumor with reality, and titillation with truth. Our passion to know far exceeds our ability to interpret. We have all become armchair therapists; unfortunately, too many of our insights are based not on Freud but on the watered-down psychology of TV cop shows. We prattle on about self-destructive behavior, purport to see patterns in isolated incidents because they appear sequentially on the nightly news, and cling to hot-tub verities about the psychological makeup of successful Presidents.

A presidential campaign has come to resemble one of those marathon encounter sessions from the early 1970s, in which truth was supposed to emerge after the individual was beaten down by group pressure, exhaustion and the desperate need to have five minutes alone. Travel with any of the current contenders in a van in Iowa and New Hampshire, and you are certain to encounter half a dozen reporters working on psycho-profiles. Tape recorders at the ready, they push and prod the candidate for his formative experiences: Was your father cruel, did your mother feed you gruel, were you popular in school, did you break the Golden Rule?

Truths sometimes do emerge from this ordeal by interview, but all too often even the most innovative and intrusive questions meet canned replies. How could they not? By this point in a campaign, a candidate has answered more & repetitive questions than a Soviet defector undergoing a CIA debriefing. Spontaneity is in such short supply that the press treats an original response as if it were the skeleton key to the candidate’s soul. Such scrutiny is the enemy of candor, since contenders face no short-term dangers by telling the truth as blandly as possible.

George Bush’s recently published as-told-to autobiography, Looking Forward, illustrates a candidate’s natural reluctance to psychoanalyze himself. Bush devotes two pages to describing the harrowing death of his three-year-old daughter Robin from leukemia in 1953. But when it comes time to sum up what this tragedy meant to him, all Bush chooses to offer is the flat observation, “To this day, like every parent who has ever lost a child, we wonder why.” One mentions this incident not to fault Bush but to highlight the difficulties in trying to assess the meaning of life experiences. No one can write about Bob Dole without discussing his withered right arm and the three years he spent in military hospitals recovering from his war wounds. But reporters with no better qualifications than a few college psychology courses should be chary about pronouncing judgment on the relationship between his suffering and his fitness to be President.

Preaching humility in amateur psychological analysis may seem hopelessly naive, especially now, after the character issue has already destroyed two candidates and a campaign manager. But in the heat of the presidential campaign, it remains imperative to remember the famous Freudian crack that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Stepping back from the quest for great psychological truths does not mean abandoning the praiseworthy attempt to predict presidential performance. But there are methods other than pop psychology for judging would-be leaders; they may not be as flashy, but they are more easily measured and assessed. Each candidate brings to the campaign a distinct management style that serves as a rough approximation of how he might react to the burdens of the presidency. The following questions may not be worthy of Oprah Winfrey, but they serve as a useful shorthand for sorting out the claims of the contenders.

How does a candidate handle bad news? If he cleaves to a shoot-the-messenger philosophy, he is likely to fill the White House with disciples of Dr. Pangloss, zealously protecting him from reality until it is too late.

Is he willing to listen? No one is blessed with the intellectual and experiential range to handle all the demands of the presidency, so an important litmus test is the willingness to solicit and absorb good advice.

How does a candidate deal with erring subordinates? He may resort to temper tantrums or just an icy stare, but unless a would-be President is willing to assert discipline, he risks being governed by a staff that provides only grief for the chief.

Is he overly impressed with paper credentials? An intellectually insecure candidate who genuflects before Harvard degrees or military uniforms may find himself spending four years in office wondering why a tumultuous world refuses to conform to the ersatz wisdom of his White House experts.

Can a candidate laugh at himself? If he cannot sometimes see the absurdity of touring cow barns in Iowa and making small talk in New Hampshire, if he does not occasionally find it odd to be spending two years and up to $50 million in quest of a harrowing job that pays $200,000 a year, then maybe, just maybe, we have finally found the character flaw that does indeed make him unfit to be President.

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