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How Pure Must Our Candidates Be?
The distasteful questions we ask our presidential hopefuls serve a real purpose
May/June 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 4
Has the press gone too far?” is a question that has been asked more frequently in this presidential campaign than any other. At a time when politicians are being canvassed on their love lives, their acquaintance with marijuana, and the originality of all their sayings, the question seems to answer itself. The “character issue” has become, in many people’s eyes, a hunting license. The prey are intimidated even when they are not eliminated, made to seem vulnerable, “on the run” instead of running for office. The character issue seems to reverse its intended effect and puts in question all of a candidate’s merits if he or she cannot measure up.
According to political managers like Raymond Strother (once Gary Hart’s media adviser) and Robert Beckel (who ran Walter Mondale’s 1984 campaign), the search for character has blighted any chance for charisma, for the kind of respect that makes governing possible. After making candidates scurry in fear from intrusive, petty, trivializing questions, how could the American public turn around and accord the winner a decent esteem?
These are all good questions. Do we really want to know as much as we are being told about other people’s (even public people’s) private lives? Are we’ going to make it impossible for public figures to have any private lives at all? The scrutinizing process has become, in the eyes of many, an incredible shrinking machine that diminishes all its participants—the prying reporters, the candidates shying off from the hunt, and a public torn between embarrassment and titillation. There seems to be no escape from knowing about Pat Robertson’s premarital sex or Albert Gore’s most recent experience of marijuana (which occurred, significantly, when he was a journalist).
Nor is this kind of inquiry limited to presidential candidates, as Judge Douglas Ginsburg learned when he tried to move from a lower court to the highest one. It was found that in his various screenings for Justice Department and judicial appointments, he had exaggerated some things and minimized others. One of the things he minimized was any mention of drugs, including the putatively harmless (or at least temporarily expected) use of marijuana in his past. Widely expressed was a fear that the media would now enforce a “generational vendetta,” disqualifying for public office those of a certain age bracket—that group of people coming of age in the 1960s, when custom seemed temporarily to exempt the young from the law against marijuana possession or use.
Of course, there have always been generational tests and barriers in our politics. After World War II it was almost impossible for men of a certain age to run for public office if they had not been in the armed forces. In the courts, too, it was a disqualification, for some time after the Civil War, for any judge to have served with the Confederacy. More recently, generations of Southern senators were brought up with an instilled certitude that keeping the “nigra” in his place was not only wise but the best thing for the “boy” himself. Many of these senators woke up in the 1970s to discover that their generation was being attacked for racial views that were accepted in an earlier time.
The rules are always changing in our politics, though never perhaps so rapidly as over the last two decades. Some lament that this changing of the rules will exclude worthy candidates. We are constantly warned that if Tendency X is allowed to run its course, no one of any self- respect will submit to the indignities of running for office.
There have always been generational tests and barriers in our politics.
But the changes in the rules that have occurred in recent years have worked mainly not to exclude candidates but rather to include vast new parts of the electorate. President Reagan is himself a prime instance of this. A generation ago, as a divorced and remarried man, he would have had a slim chance or none of being elected. Changing attitudes toward sexual morality- greater tolerance—made possible the Presidency of a man who calls for a return to the good old days of strict sexual abstinence and just saying no. Some people, at least, count that change a blessing.
More clearly a blessing in my eyes is the fact that we have in our time what no American preceding us could boast of: the prospect of serious candidacies by blacks and females. It was not until the 1960s that a Catholic could be elected President. Now we are at the point where a Jewish candidacy will soon be viable. My own nominee for the person to fill that slot is Barney Frank, the gay congressman from Massachusetts who lost seventy pounds so he would not stick in the door while coming out of the closet. Any process that will include Barney Frank in the roll of serious candidates is clearly widen- ing the pool of talents available, not narrowing it.