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A TELLING TIME FOR AMERICA : The Character of Candidates: What Do We Need to Know?

May 10, 1987|William Schneider | William Schneider is a contributing editor to Opinion.

WASHINGTON — What purpose was served by the mortification of Gary Hart? For one thing, maybe conservatives will stop complaining about how the press is always biased in favor of liberals. But Hart's downfall serves a larger purpose. It helps prevent spectacles like the mortification of Ronald Reagan, now occurring before a special committee of Congress. We make candidates go through trial by ordeal over trivial matters so important mistakes--Iran- contra --won't happen.

The U.S. political system has one big defect. Once a President is elected, we're stuck for four years. No matter what mistakes he makes, no matter how low his credibility sinks, it is difficult to get rid of a President once he takes office. As we learned with Richard M. Nixon and as we are learning again with Reagan, you can't remove a President who has lost the confidence of the nation unless he breaks the law and gets caught holding the smoking gun. Parliamentary systems don't have this problem. If a leader makes a bad mistake, he can be ousted through a vote of no confidence. The wrenching experience of a scandal is not required.

That is why we have such long, grueling, expensive and demanding presidential campaigns. We have to find out everything important about a potential President before he is elected--meaning before it's too late. As Hart said in his speech to the American Newspaper Publishers Assn. on Tuesday, "We've . . . experienced a level of examination, scrutiny and testing, including deeply personal questions asked by total strangers, that could only be considered normal in the most public of lives."

Any candidate who goes through a two-year presidential campaign is certain, sooner or later, to face a crisis. That's how we find out what they are made of, whether they can take the heat. Some, like Hart and George McGovern and Edward M. Kennedy, fail the test and are declared unfit for the world's most powerful office. Others, like Jesse Jackson, manage to handle their crises rather well.

The system is far from perfect. Once in a while we eliminate a good candidate, like Edmund S. Muskie in 1972. Even worse, the system sometimes allows a character like Nixon to get through. It is a brutal system, as Hart can testify. But by and large it works. We find out everything we want to know about the candidates' character, temperament, integrity and judgment. (With Nixon, there was ample evidence of character flaws. The voters chose to take a chance. We lost.)

Do the voters really care that much about a candidate's sex life? Actually, Americans consider adultery a serious matter. In a 1985 survey by the National Opinion Research Center, 87% of the public said that adultery was always or almost always wrong. By comparison, 77% considered homosexuality always or almost always wrong. The difference, apparently, is that adultery is a willful act that harms another person. But surely we have had good Presidents who have fooled around. Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy come to mind. One reason we didn't care then is that we didn't know. There was a gentlemen's agreement between politicians and the press: Foibles like drunkenness and sexual exploits went unreported. The people didn't need to know such things.

Now we have higher standards of conduct for the press and for public officials. Good. Kennedy, for instance, was susceptible to improper influence because of his relationship with a woman connected to organized-crime figures. What bothers most people is not the sex itself, but what irresponsible sexual behavior says about a candidate's character and judgment. In Hart's case, what it said was devastating. There is no reason why personal qualities should be less important to voters than policy positions. After all, once a President takes office, he can change his policies. It is much harder for him to change his character.

Last week was almost as bad for Reagan as it was for Hart. Act II of the Iran- contra drama opened as the joint House-Senate investigating committee heard its first witness, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard V. Secord. Act I, which dealt mostly with the Iran arms deal, came to a climax with the release of the Tower Commission Report on Feb. 26. The President acknowledged he had been trading arms for hostages, the Tower Commission called it "a very unprofessional operation" and the public docked him 20 points in his approval rating.

Act II, focusing on the diversion of profits from the arms deal to the contras in Nicaragua, is potentially far more damaging. The President has claimed all along that he knew nothing about this illegal diversion of funds. The questions before Congress are whether the President is lying and whether he broke the law.

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