Forget the gossip, focus on the character of our elected leaders
As I've got older, I find myself increasingly reading biographies of notable people.
Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton, which later became the basis of the hit musical. Doris Kearns Goodwin's magnificent study of Abraham Lincoln's cabinet, Team of Rivals.
Robert Caro's chest-cracking, four-volume biography of President Lyndon Johnson – with at least one more book to come.
They all contribute to my understanding of great men and women, how their personalities help (and/or hinder) their accomplishments, their troubles and triumphs.
How the larger contexts of history and their times help define their freedom of movement. The ways their experiences in life and office affect the choices they make and the ways they think.
No, I haven't read Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, which has excited so much comment in recent days. Although I'll probably get around to looking through it, the book is hardly a thoughtful biography; it's more a tell-all collection of gossip, some accurately reported, and some probably not.
And it certainly is not a serious journalistic discussion of President Trump's policies and preferences in office.
My point here is to try to disentangle several different kinds of writing about well-known and important people, including presidents.
Serious biographies almost always are written late ‒ after their subjects have died or have settled into well-established patterns of semi-retirement. Ideally, they are intended to be reflective, the result of mature consideration and examination of their subjects’ personalities and the policies and decisions made during life.
Gossip pieces are just that, anecdotes that may or may not be accurate. At its best, gossip provides a route to insight about a personality; at worst, it's little more than titillating tale-telling.
But because gossip sometimes does provide hints about a personality, it's very often the stuff of informal talk among insiders looking for ways to understand what's really going on.
Journalism is short-run by its very nature, "a first draft of history," as reporters often say, concentrating on the events of the day. More often than not, political journalism focuses on who is surging and who slipping, who will win or lose.
We are lucky if we even get more than the briefest consideration of what the policies of the various candidates might mean. It tends to concentrate on "the what," rather than "why.”
Which gets me to something Doris Kearns Goodwin said the other day during a radio interview. As she noted: We (especially journalists) do not pay anywhere near enough attention to the character of the people about whom we write and who we elect to office. We look at their biographical sketches, read some of their policy speeches, look at their allies and enemies.
But we don't get close to an insightful understanding of the person behind the surface decoration. Here in Michigan, for example, reporters write about the six or seven people running for governor. We learn a little bit about their biographical backgrounds, how much money they've raised, how they might be winning or losing, and what policies they espouse.
But all too often, what results from this conventional journalism is a one-dimensional caricature of a person, certainly inadequate for even the most perceptive to gauge what the real person is like underneath all the trappings of a campaign.
We have heard that Gretchen Whitmer has raised a lot of money at this point, especially for a Democrat, but during her legislative career her party was always in the minority.
Abdul El-Sayed is a young doctor from Detroit whose Arab-sounding name may hurt his electability.
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has put on the state payroll a bunch of Republican political operatives, supposedly to help his gubernatorial campaign.
These things may be true.
But none of them have sufficient texture to enable us to gain a deeper understanding of the character of the candidates, which we need to give us a better understanding into how they're likely to behave should they be elected governor.
Journalists typically don't do this for at least one very good reason: They fear it may be a step on the slippery slope leading to baseless personality assassination. Most of us prefer to focus on concrete narrow facts – the candidate’s age, education, policies, allies and so forth ‒ on the grounds that these are clearly verifiable, and that by concentrating on and endlessly repeating them, we can avoid being accused of mere speculation in our reporting.
But ‒ and here is Doris Kearns Goodwin’s point ‒ we thereby avoid trying to understand (and avoid writing about) the candidates’ all-important qualities of character.
There are legitimate journalistic ways of getting into the territory of the character question ‒ for example, interviewing friends, acquaintances and those who have worked previously for candidates.
Yet even this isn't much done ... yet.
Sure, there are dangers in playing armchair psychologist.
That’s why the psychiatric profession has adopted the "Goldwater Rule," barring members from giving a professional opinion on public figures if they have not personally examined them.
But there are significant costs in avoiding attempting to give the public some understanding of a candidate's character.
Maybe that's why so many ordinary folks prefer to watch candidates debate rather than read their speeches. In a televised debate, we can get a closer look at the guarded but significant expressions of a candidate's underlying character.
Historians say that Richard Nixon's tense and guarded affect during his first debate with Jack Kennedy was a key factor in his losing what turned out to be a very close election in 1960.
My point here is not to weigh in on President's Trump's supposed psychological fitness, or lack thereof, for his office.
What I am saying is that journalists should try harder to help further the public understanding of what's really going on.
Far too often, they hide behind a blizzard of facts instead.
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