And How about Character?

By Daniel, Missy; Casey, Shaun | Nieman Reports, Winter 1995 | Go to article overview

And How about Character?


Daniel, Missy, Casey, Shaun, Nieman Reports


The character factor in American politics did not just appear on the scene with questions about Chappaquidick in 1980 or adultery in 1988. Political Science Professor James David Barber had already defined the issue for contemporary politics in 1972 when he published the first of what would be four editions of "The Presidential Character@ Predicting Performance in the White House."

The word "character," Barber explained, comes from the Greek word for "engraving;" it signifies what life has marked into one's very being. The President dent is "a man with a memory in a system with a history," and character is "the way the President orients himself toward life," not for the moment, but enduringly.

A candidate's character can best be ascertained from biography, according to Barber. For two decades he used biography to produce psychological interpretations of the political behavior of presidents since Theodore Roosevelt, confident that it was possible to foresee the approach a president would take to the challenges of the office by examining how experience had shaped his world view, political style and character.

By the time Barber wrote the preface to his second edition in 1977, he warned of "the ultimate shredding of the bonds that tie our metaphors to our experience." Analysis of presidential character, he hoped, could still counter some of the worrisome trends he had begun to identify: elections oriented toward "a political nothingness;" presidential campaigns that required a suspension of disbelief; politics that had wrongly become "an approximation to moral perfection," and growing skepticism that the presidency was relevant to our lives and fortunes, or that the president still acted significantly in politics.

For the most part, reporting on the character of political leaders has come to mean writing about their sexual behavior. The womanizing and philandering, the adulteries, infidelities and other assorted misdeeds, transgressions and failings (in Newsweek Meg Greenfield called them "personal squalors"), confessed and denied, of Gary Hart, Bob Packwood, the Kennedys, Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich and Clarence Thomas come most immediately to mind. Add to them the stories about drinking, cheating, lying, stealing and equivocating, about plagiarism, drug use, draft evasion, Whitewater, savings and loans investments, and softcore pornographic movies, and you have a more or less complete inventory of the usual range of stories about character and its absence in politics.

General Colin Powell, on the other hand, captured the media's and the country's imagination this fall because he was perceived to have character - "some mysterious quality that we can't get at, that we don't even have a name for...that makes a seemingly ordinary man a great man," as historian David Fromkin recently said of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Whatever Powell's message might be, it was not going to matter as much as the character of the messenger.

Yet for all the character examinations that the press (and others) have increasingly indulged in over the years, it remains curious that we persist in talking about character without referring to religion. To be sure, Barber identifies Woodrow Wilson as a Christian soldier and statesman; he reveals that a 1960 book on Reinhold Niebuhr's political philosophy became Jimmy Carter's political bible; he concludes that "religion does not appear to have bitten very deeply into [Richard Nixon's] world view." But who besides Garry Wills, in the book that developed from his reporting of the 1988 presidential campaign ("Under God: Religion and American Politics"), has taken up in a serious and sustained way an analysis of religion and politics, or made religion a meaningful part of the sort of presidential biographical study that Barber advocates?

Political reporters and editors would do well to realize that it is simply impossible to understand American presidential campaigns without reference to religion. …

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