Books neglect the role of character in leadership Presidents: The leading current studies gloss over character -or get it wrong.

The Argument

March 01, 1998|By David Kusnet | David Kusnet,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

By giving Bill Clinton high marks, in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky furor, most Americans are saying that they care more about a president's public record than his private life. So why isn't this common-sense view reflected in most leading current books on national politics?

Instead these books - including recent offerings from leading journalists such as Bob Woodward, Roger Simon, and Michael )) Lewis - profess to present the real people behind the scenes but offer either cynicism or smarminess.

Some stress excruciating insiderism about how media events are staged. Others offer intrusive examinations of the most intimate details of political leaders' personal lives. But few, if any, explore the "character issue" that matters most - how candidates' experiences, attitudes and abilities shape what kind presidents they would be.

Americans have every right to ask what kind of people are seeking the presidency. First, no one wants a president to be mired in scandal, such as Richard Nixon's Watergate, Ronald Reagan's Iran/contra affair, or the Whitewater allegations that have bedeviled Clinton since the 1992 campaign. Second, as professional handlers increasingly dominate political campaigns, voters should learn more about their manipulative techniques in order to gain deeper understanding of the actual candidates behind the media hype.

And, perhaps most importantly, as the political establishment enforces conformity on most important issues, from trade agreements to balanced budgets, campaigns are inevitably preoccupied with candidates' characters.So the problem isn't that leading journalists concentrate on character - it's that they get it wrong.'

The classic academic analysis, James David Barber's "The Presidential Character" (first published in# 1972) got it right. Barber's study begins by explaining: "Leadership is not about sainthood. ... So who ought to be picked for the presidency is a concern we ought to think about not in the context of moral perfection but in the context of basic political leadership in the reality of democracy." Thus, Barber explored the personal qualities that determine presidents' effectiveness - whether they are active or passive, hopeful or gloomy, and skilled or inept in human relations. Significantly, Barber's book, first published in 1972, at the height of Nixon's power and prestige, correctly predicted that his pessimistic paranoia would ultimately be his undoing.

Fifteen years later, Gail Sheehy's "Character" opened the floodgates for books based on celebrity gossip and pop psychology. Among the 1988 presidential contenders, the immigrant's son Michael S. Dukakis and the wounded war veteran Bob Dole were depicted as abnormally self-reliant. And two senators' sons, George Bush and Albert Gore, were defined in terms of their efforts to please their famous fathers.

It ignored the most salient fact about both Bush and Dukakis. With the exception of their military service, Bush had spent most his life in a privileged cocoon, while Dukakis had rarely traveled beyond Massachusetts. So, for voters seeking to understand whether Bush could address domestic issues of concern to those less privileged than himself or whether Dukakis could lead the nation on the international scene, Sheehy offered little enlightenment. More recent books, many combining media savvy- speak with Freudianism-from- afar, offer even less insight into how potential presidents' personalities would shape policies.

Written in the aftermath of the 1996 campaign, Roger Simon's clever and entertaining "Show Time" (Random House, 327 pages, $25) presents politics as show business, with the best actors and directors prevailing. Thus, Clinton, the consummate performer, trounced the dour Dole, whose disabilities had not only made him abnormally self-contained (as Sheehy had earlier observed) but even prevented him from even holding his cue cards properly.

Books like Simon's generate media "buzz" and sales by including newsworthy anecdotes. And Simon, a former Sun columnist now White House correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, is an outstanding reporter who most recently made headlines, by being the reporter to whom Clinton Press Secretary Mike McCurry confided his strategy to "tell the truth slowly" about the Lewinsky matter.

But, more than a year after a boring campaign, only political junkies care about even the most outrageous anecdotes from the Dole campaign, such as how his handlers badmouthed him before Election Day.

Today's readers might be more interested in an issue Simon raises but doesn't explore. Just as chroniclers of the 1992 campaign reported Bush's belief that he would win because Americans would conclude Clinton's character was deficient, Simon reports that Dole, too, expected voters would "wake up" to his view that "Bill Clinton was a man of bad character and a bad president."

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