Character issue! Character issue! Character issue! Yattayattayttaya! Blahblahblah!
Bob Woodward says in a preface to "The Choice," his new book about Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, "action is character, I believe, and when all is said and done, character is what matters most." The Wall Street Journal turns over its editorial page to 14 authors, academics and former officeholders to discuss "Does Character Count?" Esquire turns over 18 pages to Taylor Branch and Richard Ben Cramer to discuss "The Best Man '96" - then Johns Hopkins invites them to reprise their articles in a discussion of "The Character Issue." Dole adviser and world-class moralizer ("The Book of Virtues") William Bennett rebukes those who don't see the centrality of character with, "A lot of people say the character of the president is not an issue.
"Well, ladies and gentlemen, step back and look at it. What is more important than the character of our president?"
Bill, everything is.
I'm bored with the character issue '96. You readers are bored with it. James David Barber must be sick of it. He's the author of the study "The Presidential Character." That groundbreaking book first came out in 1972 and was updated in 1977, 1985 and 1992 to analyze the characters of subsequent presidents.
The reason he's probably sick of it is that what people mean by the character issue today is not what he had in mind at all. I'll come back to him and his definition shortly. What people like Bennett and most of the moralizers have in mind is the personal goodness of presidents and presidential candidates. You know, did they dodge the draft, run around on their wives, fib, wheel and deal, make money with the help of fat cats?
That sort of thing barely registers on the average voter's decision-making. In fact, I would even argue that for some Americans, a presidential candidate who is a little sordid around the edges is more interesting and even more attractive than one who is trustworthy, loyal, kind, reverent, etc. Former Speaker Tip O'Neill of Massachusetts wrote in his memoirs ("Man of the House") that presidents always asked him not about John F. Kennedy, but about Boston Mayor James M. Curley. Curley went to jail twice. A best-selling novel was based on his life and character failings, "The Last Hurrah." Every president he knew had read it with delight, O'Neill said, except Ronald Reagan, "but had seen the movie."
The debate about character is an old one. Here's an endorsement of Barry Goldwater from a 1964 commercial: "With all the power that a president has, the most important thing to bear in mind is this: You must not give power to a man, unless above all else, he has character. Character is the most important quality that the president of the United States can have."
Thus spoke Richard Nixon, who, it should be remembered, was re-elected by a landslide in 1972, after much of the Watergate scandal had been revealed, suggesting, at the very least, that he was not a man of sterling character.
Public character. Gore Vidal made an interesting distinction between a politician's private and public life. His "The Best Man" was a play about a Nixon-type - good in his private life, demagogic in his public life - and an Adlai Stevenson/John Kennedy type - good man in public life, awful in private - who are opposing each other for a presidential nomination. "Stevenson/Kennedy" gives up but blocks "Nixon" by throwing his support to a dark horse whose character or lack thereof is unknown.
Of course, the "character issue" goes back long before Nixon. It goes back through Lincoln and Jefferson and even Washington to the nation's pre-presidential years. Here is an excerpt from a letter Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1784:
"I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country; he is a bird of bad moral character. The turkey is a much more respectable bird." No doubt true, but as the Republicans are learning right now, when you rely on a turkey, character alone can't save you.
James David Barber defined character as "the way the President orients himself toward life - not for the moment but enduringly." Basically, Barber thinks a man's life experience, his "personality," his "world view" and his "style" add up to his "character."
He created a matrix upon which to determine what kind of character a president has. Basically it requires the observer to determine if a president (or candidate) is "active" or "passive" and "positive" or "negative." There are four possibilities: "Active-positive," "active-negative," "passive-positive" and "passive-negative."
Active-positive presidents like their jobs and work hard at them. Active-negatives work very hard but get relatively low emotional reward for the effort. Passive-positives have low self-esteem and energy but a superficial optimism. Passive-negatives don't work hard and enjoy it even less.
Coincidentally, the first four U.S. presidents, in Barber's view, ran the gamut of character types: George Washington was a passive-negative. John Adams was an active-negative. Thomas Jefferson was an active-positive. James Madison was a passive-positive.
In the 20th century, the active-positives have been Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Gerald Ford and (this surprised me) Jimmy Carter. The active-negatives were Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.
William Howard Taft, Warren Harding and Ronald Reagan were passive-positives. Calvin Coolidge and Dwight Eisenhower were
But is he a wizard?
Knowing their types in advance would have helped voters get the kind of the president they wanted - but not necessarily a "good" or a "bad" person or a successful or unsuccessful president. I think it's significant that in the years since broadcasting became a truly mass medium, the most effective and popular presidents have been quite unalike; two active-positives (FDR, JFK); one passive-negative (Ike) and one BTC passive-positive (Reagan). But in one way similar. They share charm, great smiles, likability.
Bill Clinton is definitely an active-positive. Bob Dole? He works hard, but if he likes it, he certainly doesn't convey that with his campaign trail funereal mien.
Some Clinton critics express amazement that all the polls show women but not men are strong supporters of the adulterous Clinton. But women have always been more realistic about the so-called character issue than men. Why? A woman political scientist, Judith Lichtenberg, got right to the heart of this matter a few years back: "The politics of character drives out the politics of substance." Women want a government that cares and helps, not one that is good.
Whenever I hear people talk about the character issue, I think of a book I read 60 years ago. In L. Frank Baum's children's book "The Wizard of Oz," Dorothy discovers the Wizard's phoniness. "I think you are a very bad man," she scolds. "Oh, no, my dear," he replies. "I'm a very good man; but I'm a very bad wizard."
When it comes to selecting a surgeon, a yardman or an auto mechanic, people are and should be more interested in getting a good wizard than a good man. That's also true of presidents. I'd say especially of presidents.
Theo Lippman Jr. is a former editorial writer and columnist for The Sun. He has written biographies of such exemplars of moral integrity as Spiro Agnew and Edward M. Kennedy.
Pub Date: 10/13/96