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Book Review : Sheehy Plays Personality Journalism With the Pols


Character: America's Search for Leadership by Gail Sheehy (William Morrow: $17.95; 303 pages)

"The root of the word 'character' is the Greek word for engraving," Sheehy writes in "Character," her off-the-rack, pop-psychological study of six presidential candidates and one President. "As applied to human beings, it refers to the enduring marks left by life that set one apart as an individual . . . And enough of those mental and moral distinguishing marks are evident by the time individuals seek or rise to high office to predict whether a leader might be weak or strong, sincere or tricky, good or bad."

Sheehy anticipates the criticism that she is "psychoanalyzing . . . from afar," and rises to her own defense--indeed, the preface of her book is pure apology. "I don't pretend to be a psychoanalyst, nor do I work like one. I base my character analyses on evidence--evidence I go out and dig up."

Indeed, Sheehy insists that her method is actually better than mere psychoanalysis, where "the whole story is filtered through the patient's eyes." Sheehy explains: "In contrast, I build my portrait of an individual on evidence culled from interviewing thirty, forty, or fifty people who have known him at different stages of his life."

What Sheehy describes as a method of psychological inquiry is really nothing more than journalism, and so is her book. In fact, much of the material appeared first as a series of profiles in Vanity Fair. Here, the magazine pieces have been puffed up and linked with short, emblematic chapters with psychobabble coinage which is Sheehy's specialty: "False Change," "Forced Change," "Passive Change." And Sheehy's choice of subjects--Gary Hart, Jesse Jackson, Robert Dole, George Bush, Albert Gore and Michael Dukakis (plus a particularly caustic chapter on Ronald Reagan)--reflects the kind of journalistic bet-covering that may have been appropriate during the heat of the early primary season, but seems stale and arbitrary now.

Mostly Familiar Anecdotes

Sheehy rounds up the usual suspects--"a parent, an uncle, a rivalrous brother, schoolmates . . . the significant teacher, the high-school coach . . . the first wife"--and trots out the telling but mostly familiar anecdotes. And then she delivers her own pronouncements on the "character" of these seven politicians.

She is particularly disappointed in Gary Hart ("A pathological deficit in Hart's character riddled the public man as thoroughly as it ruled the private one") and Ronald Reagan ("Reagan really never formed strong attachments to anyone except his mother, his first wife . . . and Nancy. Friends--he has none. In reality, Reagan has no human connections in any meaningful sense.") She is clearly fascinated by Jesse Jackson (as she is by Gary Hart), although she characterizes him as "an affront waiting to happen" and declares that he "craves adulation as insatiably as any rock star . . . That inattention to the greater good in favor of pursuing personal glory reflects a character weakness that has nothing to do with color."

She suggests that Jackson does not really seek the presidency: "Jackson really fancies himself as an American Sadat, performing the most sensitive, high-profile diplomatic missions for the president, but without the accountability of appointive office."

Significantly, the chapters devoted to the two likely presidential nominees--Michael Dukakis and George Bush--are among the flattest. "Stubbornness. This, above all, registers as the most consistent mark of Michael Dukakis's character," she writes. "This is a short man from a small state who is easy to underestimate." Of George Bush, she warns: "What we have . . . is a person whose most consistent characteristic is the effort to avoid confrontation, to evade taking charge so he cannot be blamed for things that go wrong . . . If George Bush cannot bear to offend people, if he hasn't got the outer strength to pursue a lonely course, if he feels wholly comfortable only when being liked, might he not, as a president, become paralyzed?"

A Character in Her Own Story

Sheehy is very much a character in her own story. She takes credit for inspiring "the character issue" in the 1988 campaign by writing about the war experiences of Robert Dole and George Bush in Vanity Fair. She depicts herself in a tete-a-tete with Donna Rice's father, whom she slyly provokes into revealing "his own worst fears"--"Have you got some information indicating she was a hooker?" the distraught father asks Sheehy. And when Sheehy accompanies Jesse Jackson on a campaign visit to an Iowa elementary school, she insists on setting up a confrontation between the candidate and an unsuspecting 8-year-old: "Reverend, would you say hello to this young man? He's heard that if a black person becomes president, white people become slaves."

Sheehy is right about one thing--the nature of politics in the age of media makes it desperately important for us to penetrate the legerdemain of the 30-second spot and find the real man or woman: "It is not only useful, but essential, that we examine the character of those who ask us to put our country in their hands," she writes. We need "the cold slap of insight to wake us up from the smoothly contrived media images."

What we find in "Character" is more often the spitball of personality journalism and pop psychology.

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