November 15, 1999
RAY SUAREZ: What do we mean by presidential character? How do we assess it? Has it changed over time? We get five perspectives now from NewsHour regulars Presidential Historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss and Journalist and Author Haynes Johnson. Joining them tonight are Gail Sheehy, contributing editor at Vanity Fair and author of "Hillary's Choice," a portrait of the first lady, and Garry Wills, Professor of History at Northwestern University. His new book is "A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government." Garry Wills, in a recent essay, you stressed competence over what's being called in shorthand -- in common parlance -- character. But they don't plot out on ends of a continuum.
GARRY WILLS: No, of course not. Character is important. My objection was to the idea that you can get the right temperament, the right maturity, the right morals and predict a character who will be a good leader. We all know people who are of very equitable temperament and fine morals and great maturity but can't lead, don't attract followers. Character is very important. In fact, I wrote a whole book on this about George Washington, that character was what this republic was built on. But character in the 18th century meant public reputation for public virtue. And that's the sense in which Washington distinguished himself. And that's what we would look for for character. Otherwise, character has been taken as a license to snoop or to practice psychoanalysis without a license. So we hear somebody gets angry a lot so he can't be a leader. I know a lot of leaders who get very angry.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Gail Sheehy, you've used the phrase "the politics of biography." And, after all, when the candidate controls what's in the biography, it's predictable that they're going to burnish and highlight those things that show them in a good light and suppress or omit altogether those things that show them in a bad light. How do we know about character then?
GAIL SHEEHY: Well, it becomes more difficult. I define character as the Greeks did, as the enduring marks imprinted by life that distinguish one as an individual. And it's been important since Plutarch wrote his great book "Lives" in 105 A.D. Now that the candidates themselves have seized the character issue and look what we have as differences among these characters, we have four presidential candidates essentially, all white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant middle aged males, all raised in reasonably affluent circumstances, sons of successful professional fathers. And none of them have very stark ideological differences so they're all running on the politics of personal biography. I think that's why John McCain is giving George W. Bush a run for his money in New Hampshire. Bill Bradley has his teammates out vouching for his character and saying you can tell a lot more about a man by playing against him every week than you can by talking to him for a year. So, we have to, as voters, become more discerning, look beyond the biographies that are, you know, really contracted by these candidates -- they all have books out -- and beyond the photo ops and the sound bites to the enduring, repetitive pattern of behavior. How have they reacted to failure? How have they reacted to success? Do they lie some of the time or all of the time? Too often we've been burned by accepting presidential candidates for neatly packaged virtues they've turned out not to have. The new Nixon was not new. The competent Carter was perhaps competent but he also had something of a nervous breakdown in office. Nixon was a very competent foreign policy President but he was also a deeply paranoid individual who took this country through a great national trauma. So I think it's really kind of amazing to say that character doesn't count.
RAY SUAREZ: Haynes Johnson, Gail Sheehy suggests we should become more discerning. But, isn't some of the character issue built on the presumption, maybe even the myth that we can really know these guys?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Yeah, I have trouble with the character issue, so-called. We all talk about it. We know what we mean. This guy is ignoble; this guy is a crook, this guy is wonderful. This guy is Plato, or so forth. I would rather use the terms qualities, qualities of leadership and what makes a great leader. Is it strength? Is it a force? Is it intellect? Is it the ability to move things, to be felt, to make a difference? I mean, that's what I think when we look back at our American Presidents, those that stand out were those that moved the times. They were able to connect with the people in a way that the people understood these were people of consequence. When Roosevelt died, Lyndon Johnson - Doris will remember this and Michael too particularly - Lyndon Johnson was just weeping. He said, God, how he could take it for all of us. How he could take it for all of us. I think that's kind of what it's all about. The country felt something. And whether you loved or hated Franklin Roosevelt, you knew there was a force there, whether you didn't like his character or not, but you knew there were qualities of leadership. And I think that's the way --
GARY WILLS: That was the public record though. That wasn't going into how he felt when his brother died.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Exactly.
RAY SUAREZ: Doris Kearns Goodwin, aren't some of these things only things that we can know in retrospect?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: What we know is if we define character not as moral virtue or sexual fidelity which has been too much with us lately but rather as Gail said the recurrent patterns of behavior over time exhibited in the past performance, these characters didn't come out of nowhere, they've been somewhere beforehand. I mean, look at the anger issue, for example. The problem is when you take it out of focus and you say McCain is angry. Somebody said I agree with Gary, that may not be anything at all. It may be a sudden outburst. Lyndon Johnson used to do that a lot. And then he'd feel sorry and suddenly a card would appear at the aide's house. So they were glad for that anger to come. But the key thing is does the anger, is it of such a nature that it permanently damages relationships? Is the candidate the kind of person who when he gets upset or things don't go well, he blames others for it? Does he therefore have a problem with loyalty on his staff? Is there a turnover on the staff? I'd like to know things about the past Similarly, with the pop quiz of George W. Bush, it may not matter what his grades were in college or whether he knows leader's name but does his candidate show in previous jobs as governor, as senator, whatever they were, curiosity, a love of learning, absorbing information, the mental traits that do matter? That's there for us in those mini-biographies can be very helpful.
RAY SUAREZ: You talk about the importance of the past. Right now leading every poll I've seen is a man whose past is largely unknown to most voters, George W. Bush, who began his public career in his mid 40s.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think it's our responsibility as analysts, as writers, to look into that past, not to look into what he did as a young man before maturity set in, not to look at something that might have been a youthful indiscretion to use that famous word. But, rather, I'd like to know more about his governorship. How was he able to pull people together? Was he able to inspire loyalty among people? He still has got some years there that matter and there are mature years before that. I think we're just beginning to learn about those things. I think the trouble is we define the past as sort of moments of great exposure rather than these patterns over time which are there for us to see.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Michael Beschloss, is part of our problem here is the fact that someone who is supposed to be both the head of state and embody the nation, in effect, and be the head of the government get down and dirty with legislators, call people into the wood shed and all of that, we're asking for a lot from our President, and these character questions are sometimes hard to place?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Absolutely because we're in this odd position, the founders thought it was a good idea to combine almost a king and a prime minister in the same person. So you've got this person who is President who, on the one hand, is divisive, proposing all sorts of polarizing programs that will divide Congress and the American people, and at the same time he is supposed to be someone who parents will hold their children up and say, "this is someone that you should be like." The two are almost antithetical. But, you know, the other problem is that we're in a new age as far as our looking at the issue of character because, for most of American history, presidential nomination was decided by people who had known the candidate in one way or another -- fellow party leaders or fellow governors or members of Congress. They would have a pretty good idea from knowing the person for 20 or 30 years, is this a person whose word can be relied on? Is this someone of pretty consistent values? Now that's not true. We as voters have to cast votes in primaries over a space of about six weeks based on information that's very unreliable and fragmented. We all have to make these character judgments that other people used to. The other problem is that now with the Internet and 24 hour a day cable news networks we're flooded with all sorts of information that we never had before and all this makes it very tough for each of us as an American.
RAY SUAREZ: So in a weird way we know too much and too little at the same time, Gary?
GARY WILLS: Well, we know too much that is irrelevant. As I say, I think the public record-- you're right. The people used to know them because of the party system. In parliamentary systems they know that. These are people they worked with as they go up the parliamentary ladder. And you should only care about character, it seems to me, when it enters the public realm. For instance, womanizing, if it comes to the point where a Clinton is lying to his staff, using his staff, lying to the public, then it's no longer a private vice, it's a public vice. Public virtue is involved. But going back and trying to bring in all of the private aspects of a person; for instance Gail Sheehy said that Michael Dukakis will be a great president because he grew from the fact that he lost the governorship and he lost a brother. Well, you know, Clinton lost the governorship and he kind of lost a brother to drugs. Those men couldn't be more different. So it seems to me that is not really useful information.
RAY SUAREZ: Gail Sheehy?
GAIL SHEEHY: I never said Michael Dukakis would be a great president. That's really a falsification. I just reread my book on character and I did not say that. In fact I said he basically was running to justify his Greek immigrant background and to be respected.
GARY WILLS: And he had deepened and matured through these experiences.
GAIL SHEEHY: He did do that. I never make judgments on who should be the president. I just go out and dig up the kind of thing that party leaders used to do. I go back to a person's... having been trained by Margaret Meade in the anti-theological method, I go back to a person's home....
GARY WILLS: But you offer....
GAIL SHEEHY: Could I finish, please. I talk to the mother or the father if they're still alive. Teaches, coaches, first wives, second wives or spouses if it's a female candidate the person who people... people who worked with or played with the person over the course of many years so that by the time you have a candidate who is 50 or 55, you can see the patterns of behavior that are repetitive. In the case of Bill Clinton, for instance, he grew up in an extremely permissive environment with a mom who bragged about carrying a drink around on Sunday and going to the racetrack. And so he didn't really see anything wrong with rewarding himself with having women along the way after he had worked himself to death. And we knew about that when we elected him. So, in fact, we were kind of enablers. We had alloy allowed him to pleasure himself and to lie about it and then it became a national issue when he did it before... under oath. Then we became shocked because he wasn't the paragon of virtue that we could hold up before our sons and daughters so we didn't know about his character and we are kind of unhappy with ourselves because we took it off the table.
RAY SUAREZ: Of the more than 40 people who have held this job, there are far more that we didn't know all this stuff about, the kind of things that Gail Sheehy has been talking about. Were we better off before? Not that I'd ever speak up for ignorance?
GARY WILLS: I was talking to 12,000 honor students the other day, and they said... I said did we have better leaders in the past? And a great many of them said no but we thought they were better because we didn't know the things we know now and we don't want to know them now.
HAYNES JOHNSON: One of the problems and Michael and Gary just talked
about it, is the blurring, the speed with which we look at, we want
to know all these things.
RAY SUAREZ: Doris.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Especially since we have to counter that the candidates are trying to project themselves. When Coolidge was running they figured he a certain sour personality. Somebody said he was weaned on a pickle or he looked like he was, so they tried to project somebody who laughed a lot and smiled a lot. Which he never did. Public relations was just coming into being at that time. Given we have these huge amounts of money, ads and consultants, trying to give us a view of these candidates' character or candidates, it's up to the media to try to figure it out. Understanding their response to disappointment or loss, as we talked about, is important. Walter Litman, for example, projected the idea that Roosevelt was a superficial lightweight character. If he had really seen the way he responded to polio, 39 years old, struck at the height of his power, the patience, the focus, the concentration, the continuing optimism that he exhibited even after that huge loss, he couldn't have said that this was a lightweight character. That hadn't been fully explored in a way that it would be today.
RAY SUAREZ: We're going to end it right there, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gail Sheehy, Gary Wills, Haynes Johnson, and Michael Beschloss, thank you all.