Is Getting Personal the Same as Probing Character?

Nieman Reports, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Is Getting Personal the Same as Probing Character?


David Broder, columnist, The Washington Post: "The harder part is how we can help voters figure out who the hell these candidates really are and how they might operate. I think we've slowly gotten better at probing those questions. And while it verges on the personal, it's important to know what kind of family forces shaped these people. If somebody has grown up in a dysfunctional family, that's going to affect the way that they behave. You don't have to look any further than the examples of Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich to see how that can change politics and policy in the country. But it's also important for us, and I think it's something we're capable of doing without pretending to be psychiatrists, to find out about what their peer relationships have been, what their relationships with their staffs have been over the years.

"One thing that I'm engaged in is trying to get these candidates for President to talk about what they've learned or sensed about the relationship between Presidents and Congresses. It's been a perpetual problem for every recent President. `What have you learned from that?' I was down asking Governor Bush that question last week, asking him about what he took away from watching his father struggle with Congress. Those are things that are not intensely personal but maybe will give people clues as to who these people really are and how they might function in the office."

Judy Woodruff, Anchor and senior correspondent, CNN: "Alan Simpson, would you agree that it is important for the press to look at the family background, closely deeply at the family background of these candidates? That it does matter whether they've had, whether you call it a dysfunctional family or whatever, and we do need to know their personal relationships with staff and others to see how they interact with people? Are these important?"

Alan Simpson, former senator, Director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University: "I think, Judy, the term is "closely deeply." What is "closely deeply"? ... Steve Brill made the comment that there are many media sources who have spent thousands of dollars and man and woman hours in Odessa, Texas with somebody who's a drug counselor hoping and praying they can find the person who counseled George W. Bush if he had this problem. In my mind this a total waste of energy and human endeavor. But that's my view and that's only because I was on federal probation for shooting mailboxes and slugged a cop in Laramie. And I think those things should go unwritten, for God's sake.

"But they looked all over for that when I ran, so I put it out there first. And Dick Cheney, when he went through his confirmation, had a DUI when he was at the University of Wyoming. He told Sam Nunn, if you're going to bring that up I'm going to bring it up first. So it's easy to talk about all that stuff when you're out there in the fourth estate, but how would you feel if it were happening to you? And that's the difference. I think it's absurd to dig deeply into the life of a person who is 50 years old about what they did when they were 18 because everybody in this room will flunk that test. So what is the purpose of that? The public perceives it as banal and offensive and puerile. And when they see the person from the media asking that question they think the guy's a jerk. And their question immediately in their own head is, `What did you do?' That's where [Bill] Bradley unnerved the whole crew [on a Sunday morning interview show] when he turned to the bunch and said, `Did you ever smoke pot?'"

Susan Page, White House Bureau Chief, USA Today: "One of the legacies of the Monica Lewinsky controversy or scandal is that Americans hope to have a President that they know a lot less about, a lot less about his or her personal life. And I think a lot of reporters feel that way, too. For various reasons, and some of them quite legitimate, we explored in great detail the most personal details about President Clinton, more than we wanted to know.

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