May/June 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 4
The distasteful questions we ask our presidential hopefuls serve a real purpose
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.
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 widening the pool of talents available, not narrowing it.
Paradoxically, the same processes that have led to the election of a divorced man have led to the scrutiny of adulteries committed by Gary Hart. The same opening up of taboo subjects, the same willingness to reassess the relevance of sexual behavior to public respectability made people bring up questions earlier suppressed. The ban on divorced men, or on Catholics, or Jews, or blacks, was never explicit in our politics. Neither Congress nor the Constitution, nor any party rules or guidelines expressly forbade the nomination of minority candidates. It was an unspoken prohibition, a gentlemen’s agreement cloaked in civil reticences. The whole structure of suppression rested on an imperviousness to scrutiny or public challenge. It was simply unthinkable that a woman, for instance, could be President.
Well, now it is thinkable. But for that to happen, vast changes in our social assumptions had to take place —the entire feminist movement, for instance. That, in turn, could not have occurred without the preceding civil rights movement, during which arguments, debates, and demonstrations broke the rules of contained discourse that had countenanced Jim Crow laws.
Within the past few decades there were struggles over the most disturbing, wrenching things that went to society’s inmost ties, to the makeup of the family, to relations between husband and wife, parent and child. They called into question interlocked patterns of authority, the instilled respect for parents and teachers and officers of the law. They were resisted, advocated, articulated, household by household, and the struggle is far from over. Generations overlap. The losing side has enclaves where it is still in the majority. Many try to deny that changes have taken place at all or that they are permanent. President Reagan speaks for that denial when he claims that the social values of the past have not been eroded or discredited.
But the sexual revolution, for instance, has occurred, despite those who believe that sexual roles will resume their old configuration if we just stop talking about them. Don’t mention condoms in schools, these people insist, don’t discuss AIDS in front of the children, keep it out of the media, don’t bring it up. There is an aching desire to return to some of the social taboos, the unspoken arrangements that once kept people in their place. This is reflected in the fad for Allan Bloom’s book The Closing of the American Mind, arguing as it does that exposure to more than one culture system destroys the very idea of morality.
Our society in general is questioning past attitudes toward race, gender, and authority, and sex is one of the most touchy but inevitable arenas where this self-questioning goes forward. One clear sign of that was the advice of some people to Gary Hart. They thought he should have immediately said, “Of course, 1 slept with Donna Rice. So what?” That reflects the attitude of many in our society, and it shows that what some see as prying into one man’s privacy is seen by others as a vindication of what they believe is acceptable. After all, we live in a time when many respected figures live openly together in what used to be called sin. Barney Frank and others openly say that they are gay, that there is nothing wrong with that, that they have nothing to be ashamed of. That is not a position that would be as acceptable in many places as it is in Frank’s Boston area. But it puts homosexuals in a difficult position—should they be ashamed of being ashamed? If it is all right for a gay person to be a political candidate, shouldn’t one fight to establish that right rather than hide from the struggle? Yet who has the right to compel another to enlist in such a way? The questions circle back and back on each other. And in an open society all such shifting evaluations are expressed through the media, our forum for encountering each other as members of the same large and disagreeing community. The rules are changing for everyone, whether one wants to admit that or not. Parents admit it when they accept the new sexual behavior of their children, if only by averting their eyes from it. Society’s consensus is distributed, with large areas of change and equally large enclaves of resistance. That is how profound social alteration, going deep into moral attitudes, is always effected.
So candidates are rightly confused. They are caught in a social situation where conflicting signals are being sent, clashing attitudes expressed; where there is widespread disagreement on fundamental premises. The presidential race itself is one of the ways this country decides what kind of society it wants to be, what symbols it will honor, what authority figures it finds persuasive. It always mattered that the nominee for President was male, white, Protestant, presumably happily married (but only once), and presumably heterosexual. In fact, it was always decisive to be most or all of those things. If you were not, you were simply out of the running from the outset. There were race and gender assumptions so securely in place that they never had to be brought up. There was little discussion of a candidate’s private life because the range of a candidate’s options in his private life was so narrow.
Those who did not bring up religion in an election wanted the reigning religious exclusions to continue. So religion ruled the situation far more rigidly when it was not discussed than it does now, when the fact that Bruce Babbitt is a Catholic is somewhat relevant, but not the decisive factor, as it was with Al Smith, nor a disproportionately relevant factor, as with John Kennedy. The issue had to get more relevant, to be brought up and openly addressed, before it could become less relevant. Only in that way could society make up its mind publicly on the matter and signal a new set of presidential rules: more inclusive for Catholics (though not yet for Jews).
Bringing such matters up, even before the children, is the way we discover jointly that we have changed our communal attitude. We discover the change while making the change, in public interchanges with our fellow citizens. We could not know the shift had occurred until it was thrashed out in public forums of social acceptance —forums like the presidential race, our leading symbol of social choice and cohesion.
Does smoking pot in the sixties have any relevance to a political career in the eighties? That, too, is a question we could not know the answer to until it was brought up. For Bruce Babbitt and Senator Gore, the answer seems to be no. But this is a question on which society itself has been somewhat hypocritical. For one thing, there has been a lag in time, or a lack of fit, between behavior and the law—the sort of thing we experienced under Prohibition. Law enforcement figures still preach against marijuana; this First Lady takes her campaign against it into the schools; Justice Department prosecuters have to declare whether they themselves have broken this particular law, detailing times and circumstances. It was an institutional hypocrisy that caught Ginsburg in the anomalous position of being higher in the Justice Department than some who had been disqualified because of what he did or that put him on the way toward being a high court justice who might have to pronounce on a crime (if that is what it is) that he himself had committed. And if it is not a crime, then why have it on the books? As 1 say, the “youthful indiscretion” argument seems to work for a Gore or a Babbitt, who did not have the institutional procedure of the Justice Department and the specific legal mandate that Judge Ginsburg sought. The Ginsburg case posed in its most pointed way this question: How does one go from challenging authority figures-- as Ginsburg did, not only by smoking marijuana and growing a beard and long hair but by demonstrating against a war being conducted by the political authorities of the United States—to becoming an authority figure oneself? Even with all these factors weighing against him, Ginsburg would not necessarily have been denied office if other matters—possible conflict of interest and misrepresentations of his experience—had not also come into play.
The question of who deserves authority is complicated and must be decided case by case, person by person, but smoking marijuana is relevant precisely because the sixties were a generation that challenged authority so effectively and had such readily identifiable symbols for doing that. We are still caught in the turmoil caused by such questioning, and the sixties generation will have to sort out its attitudes in the world it helped change, with all the doubts that follow on successful challenges to authority. How do you reestablish authority? On what grounds of agreed values? These are the large questions that underlie such apparently trivial points as whether one broke a law that is still on the books, whether one supports that law now or would favor abolishing it.
There is probably no better way to thrash out all this than in a political race. From the time of George Washington, the choice of President has been a symbolic endorsement of certain values. He, more than any other President, was chosen for character, apart from the issues. Admittedly he was chosen by an electoral college that still had real independence. Nonetheless, that college voted for a man who would be a convincing, persuasive, unifying leader of the people at large —which he proved to be. He was chosen for his war record and, even more, for his resignation of military authority, for his peacetime self-restraint during the troubled period of transition from the Articles of Confederation to the present Constitution. Washington was an embodiment of what America was striving to be as a nation when we did not yet have a cluster of symbols and institutions that made the national identity and authority.
If we have trouble finding a similar figure now, it is because we do not have as firm a consensus of our values or as easy a way of signaling our identity. It was not held against Washington that he was a slaveholder. That was no disqualification for the Presidency down through Andrew Jackson’s time; after him, it became a liability, if not a disqualification. Slaveholding had by then been brought up and made relevant. Today, of course, we exclude slaveholders from running for office. We have even eliminated the electoral college except as a counting device—going more directly to more voters than ever in the search for a rallying figure in this large, heterogeneous nation. This is a risky process, and some want to reverse it. In a recent symposium sponsored by Harper’s magazine, Raymond Strother said: “We force a man or woman to run for president of the United States as though he were a city-council candidate in Dubuque.… The race for it [the Presidency] should be nobler and larger.”
The only way to maintain the charisma and distance of the office is to avoid the demeaning process of seeking votes in Iowa, exposing oneself to endless questions that reflect the confusions of the society at large. Charisma is protected (if not created) by not talking about certain things in front of the children. Robert Beckel agreed with his fellow symposiast: “These primaries don’t enhance a candidate. They mold the public’s opinion of a candidate and almost always mold it negatively.… This system has got to be overhauled, and we have to get this word ‘democracy’ out of the way. We have to get back to selecting delegates in a rational way that gets us our best nominee with the least amount of fighting.”
Though he seems to be calling, on the face of his words, for a return to smoke-filled rooms crowded with “brokers,” Beckel is actually expressing a deeper yearning for the original electoral college—for people who know what the voters should want, rather than what they think they want, and can do the choosing for them. The only trouble with this is that a modern electoral college would have to consider the same things the original one did: how to find a candidate who is convincing, persuasive, authentic in the role of speaking for America. And no candidate can be that anymore unless he or she goes directly to the people, with an open and inclusive campaign, rather than rely on an elite of the sort that ruled America in the 1780s. The “character issue” is simply the modern way of stating the abiding problem of the American Presidency: How is one person to express the character of the American people, a character that is never entirely made up, yet one that emerges (so far as that is possible) precisely through transactions like the campaigns for the Presidency?
We are always changing the rules in this process, simply by talking to each other every day. It is called self-government. And we talk to each other through the presses and the cameras, by what we read and see, or refuse to read or see, about Americans at some distance from us coping with the same questions we have. In an electronic age we must plug in to the process in order to become aware of all our fellow citizens. The community exists only so long as its parts are in electronic touch with each other. This leads us, if not toward consensus, then at least to a sense of the boundaries of our disagreement, the rules and limits within which we can keep on disagreeing, keep bringing up questions that matter to any of us, and still be conscious of ourselves as part of a larger community, one that, despite all the changes of recent years—or, rather, because of the changes that have brought in more women, more blacks, more gays, more of the deprived and handicapped—is a society achieving “a more perfect union.”