Facing the fact that candidates are also people

ALICE STEINBACH

October 29, 1992|By ALICE STEINBACH

Let's forget for a moment, if we can, The Strange Case of Ross (I'd rather be Father of the Bride than President of the United States) Perot.

And, instead, let's examine for a moment The Strange Case of the Incredibly Similar Headlines that appeared recently in a single edition of the New York Times.

Here are the headlines -- followed by a brief summary of what was contained in the stories that ran beneath them:

Headline No. 1: "The Faces Behind the Face That Clinton's Smile Masks."

Point of story: The shocking news here is that although Bill Clinton on television "radiates earnestness, empathy and polite deference," he can display a different side in person. This "face behind the face that Clinton's smile masks" includes a "fascination with and yearning for the adulation he is getting, and his surliness and finger-wagging upbraidings when something does not go exactly as he likes."

My reaction after reading the story: Taken at face value, this article makes Clinton sound like almost everyone else on the planet. Including, probably, the reporter who wrote it.

Headline No. 2: "The Changing Faces of Arthur Ashe."

Point of story: The earth-shattering news in this long piece is that Arthur Ashe "has made adjustments" in his life since it was revealed publicly that he has AIDS.

My reaction: Is that all there is? Anyone who knows anything about Arthur Ashe, a man long respected for his integrity, would not be surprised at this news. So why the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde headline?

Headline No. 3: "Al Gore's Double Life."

Point of story: Best summed up in a direct quote from the article. "People who know Gore well almost always say the same thing in describing him: He is a lot more complicated than he seems."

My reaction: Aren't we all?

Which brings me to my first point: Ninety-nine percent of all people throughout history (an approximate figure, by the way) are a lot more complicated than they seem when you get to know them.

If this were not true, Jane Austen and Mark Twain would have had no material for their novels. If this were not true, the honeymoon would never be over and divorce would never have been invented. And if this were not true, there would not be a firm in New Jersey that manufactures most of the world's supply of those dreary couches used in psychoanalysts' offices.

Which brings me to my second point: Since few people are what they seem to the casual observer -- and since most reporters are destined to remain casual observers -- the wise reader approaches with caution any pronouncements about faces under masks and double lives of public figures.

In fact, it strikes me that there is no such thing as a "double life." Not if you view the totality of a person being made up of many often contradictory parts.

And if you accept this premise -- that all of us operate on many levels -- it seems naive, for example, to view Bill Clinton as hiding something from us because he is "a curious and sometimes calculated blend of Oxford polish and Dogpatch raffishness, of idealism and expediency, elusiveness and ego."

Others might say that he, like George Bush -- whose image ranges from the kinder, gentler grandfather to the "I'll do what I have to do to be re-elected" candidate -- is simply a man who's a composite of all his experiences. And both men, it seems fair to say, are motivated not only by ego but also by id.

Which, of course, is true for all of us.

So as the days of the presidential campaign dwindle down to a precious few and the media blitz moves into full throttle, we find ++ ourselves struggling to find the true "character" in each of the candidates.

Which is the real Bush, we wonder, and which the real Clinton?

However it's unlikely, given the complexity of human motivations, that we will ever know with certainty what makes either man run.

But it doesn't surprise me to learn that both men, like the rest of us, have good days and bad days; have angry moments and smiling moments; are manipulative at times and pliant at other times; have traits they'd like to emphasize and others they'd like to hide; are calculating on some occasions and vulnerable on others.

In fact, there's a phrase for such behavior and it has nothing to do with masks or duplicity: It's called being human.

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