Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romeny and President Barack Omaba. (Getty Images )
Throughout this long and so far not especially dramatic presidential contest, political pundits have wondered when Mitt Romney would reveal his true self to the American public. Those same commentators have been asking for the real Barack Obama — the hope-and-change champion of the 2008 campaign or the more dourly realistic president of the last four years — to please stand up.
The word that keeps cropping up among the chattering class is "character," and not simply in the narrow sense of moral backbone. The focus is on the essential nature of these nominees. Who are they exactly? What are their core beliefs? And to what extent are they willing to compromise their values for the sake of their ambition?
The series of presidential debates beginning Wednesday provides yet another heavily stage-managed platform for the nominees to sell their message and their let's-enjoy-a-cold-one-together affability. The questions may be focused on the issues, but the national spotlight is undeniably on the personal attributes of the politicians.
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The nominees have what might be called an Aristotelian problem. In the "Poetics," Aristotle defines character as "that which reveals moral purpose, showing what kinds of things a man chooses or avoids." The campaign trail, like a plot out of Greek tragedy (minus the blood if not the ax), is a testing ground upon which action clarifies, for better or worse, the hearts and minds of those contending for the ultimate brass ring.
The pundits, on the other hand, are more concerned with appearances. Their definition of character is rather simplistic, turning on such superficial points as likability and relatability. The assumption is that character is something to be trotted out in words — let me tell you who I am — rather than discovered through conduct: action, inaction and speech but also silence just as crucially, all of which can be at striking variance with self-knowledge.
Political actors and audiences should take note of some of the insights playwrights, the go-to experts on theatrical role-playing, have bestowed on us in the last century or so. Driven by a factionalized media culture in love with sensationalizing headlines, the conversation has gotten stuck somewhere between 19th century melodrama, in which feverish stereotypes prevailed, and late 20th century TV movies, in which a sentimental morality ruled the day.
Candidates today are required to wear their values on their sleeves. Not only must those seeking the highest office of the land don a flag pin to convey their patriotism but they must also praise their maker, sweet-talk their wife, delight in their children doing their homework and pay homage to their self-sacrificing mothers. (Female candidates, not burdened to the same degree, are forced instead, as Hillary Rodham Clinton can attest, to reassure the public that, forbidding pantsuit aside, they're no harridan.)
August Strindberg, late 19th century path-breaker of modern drama, offers perhaps the best critique of this naive approach to character in the preface to his most famous play, "Miss Julie."
Noting the way "character" in the theater had come to denote "an individual whose nature had once and for all set firm or adapted to a certain role in life, who had stopped growing," he compares this to the person "who goes on developing, the skillful navigator on the river of life," who is seen as characterless, "in a derogatory sense, of course, because he was so hard to catch, classify, and keep track of."
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Strindberg rejected this "bourgeois concept of the immobility of the soul," which translated on the stage into a set of stock types invariably appearing "drunk or comical or sad." For him, "the summary judgments that authors pass on people — this one is stupid, that one brutal, this one jealous, that one mean — ought to be challenged by naturalists, who know how richly complicated the soul is, and who are aware that 'vice' has a reverse side, which is very much like virtue." (Bill Clinton to the front desk, please!)
At a time when the echo chamber for sound bites has grown only louder thanks to Twitter and Facebook, these words are worth recalling. It's not that political figures, many of whom act as though they were vying for a cartoon spot on the op-ed page, shouldn't be skewered. But there are perils to living in a culture more in love with caricature than character. Chekhov knew this as well as anyone. His credo, as laid out in a letter to a fellow writer, couldn't be more clearly formulated: "I regard all trademarks and labels as badges of prejudice."