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Character Issue Emerging as Larger Campaign Factor

May 09, 1987|ROBERT SHOGAN | Times Political Writer

WASHINGTON — In his bitter exit speech from the Democratic presidential campaign Friday, Gary Hart called for changes in the nation's political system--which he charged had destroyed his candidacy by slighting more significant issues and exaggerating the importance of his personal behavior and character.

"For most people in this country," he said, "that's not what concerns them."

Many scholars and political analysts, however, believe he is on the losing side of the argument. In large part because Hart's presidential prospects were wrecked by his self-confessed mistake in judgment, the scrutiny of candidates' character is expected to take on greater importance than ever in the 1988 struggle for the White House.

Moreover, these scholars suggest, while difficult questions of personal privacy and balance exist, the character and personal conduct of candidates for President are crucial factors in voters' minds.

"Character is singularly important, more important in the presidency than in any other office," Michael Robinson, a specialist on the press and the presidency at Georgetown University in Washington, insisted. "Not only do I believe it's proper focus for press scrutiny, but I am absolutely convinced that the question of presidential character is more important than a candidate's position on any issue or set of issues."

"Candidacies are matters of character," said James McGregor Burns, a presidential scholar at Williams College in Massachusetts.

"Time after time after time, the major issue positions of the candidates have turned out not to be a good guidance for the voters," said James David Barber, a political scientist at Duke University.

And on many critical issues, including war and peace, occupants of the White House often face unforeseen challenges that force them to fall back on their own fundamental judgment and values, they said.

Even before Hart's disastrous experience last weekend, in which a newspaper reported his encounters with a Miami actress, the Tower Commission's criticism of President Reagan's handling of the Iran- contra affair had suggested compelling reasons for voters to look closely at the leadership styles and practices of those seeking to succeed him in the Oval Office.

"A man could say one thing on Monday, be elected on Tuesday and change his mind on Wednesday, but if a man is bent on Monday, he will still be bent on Wednesday," said a former presidential press secretary, George Reedy, now the Nieman professor at Marquette University College of Journalism.

Peace Candidate

Georgetown University's Robinson agreed, citing his own experience as a young political volunteer. "I worked hard to get Lyndon Johnson elected as the peace candidate, and then he almost shipped me off to Vietnam," Robinson said. "That was a function of Johnson's character. (President Richard M.) Nixon was often right on the issues but always wrong on matters of character. That not only did him in, but came close to doing us all in."

At the same time, some scholars--and a number of politicians--expressed concern about specifics of the Hart case.

"My problem with this whole episode is that I don't feel that this is a real broad test of character," said presidential scholar Burns. "I feel that Hart has been drummed out of the campaign by a puritanical response to one aspect of his character."

Similarly, Duke University's Barber said: "I agree with Hart that one's sex life is a pretty peripheral item in understanding the political or presidential character of these candidates."

Some practicing politicians went further.

Critical of Press

The Rev. Jesse Jackson was highly critical of the press coverage of Hart. "I think he was sabotaged," he said. "He really was set up," Jackson told a CBS television interviewer. "It raises some profound questions about journalistic ethics and limits," Jackson said.

Charles T. Manatt, co-chairman of Hart's campaign, told a reporter: "It's more the media than the public that's interested in such details of personal behavior and when a newspaper does a stakeout to get the details, that's beyond the pale, it's gone too far."

Nonetheless, there was wide agreement that intense personal scrutiny of presidential candidates is an inescapable fact of American political life.

"Hart's fantasizing about how campaigns develop," Barber said. "In the real world, the press is going to be looking at him. To say, 'I'm going to lead my personal life the way I want to and you guys just report on my position papers'--that's just not the way it works."

Scrutiny to Intensify

And such scrutiny is almost certain to intensify.

"If character can force a front-running candidate out of the race in five days, then character is going to be raised as an issue whenever and however people can raise it," said American Enterprise Institute scholar Norman Ornstein.

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