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.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Tue, 01/09/2018 - 8:43am

That Trump is mentally ill and is showing sings of dementia is become more and more obvious and people are starting to openly say that is a good thing.

Dick Hooker
Tue, 01/09/2018 - 8:48am

Amen, Phil. Here's another vote for integrity over ideology!

Larry K Snider
Tue, 01/09/2018 - 9:25am

As usual, you have made the crucial distinction and labeled the most important trait in electing officials.

Chuck fellows
Tue, 01/09/2018 - 9:40am

Journalists should review's "Political Courage Test" and insist that all those who aspire to public office answer all the questions. That action will provide insight to the "character" of political aspirants, not to mention their capacity for coherent and rational thought.

Tue, 01/09/2018 - 10:09am

Phil, if you are suggesting that journalists should be focusing more on Trump's character, then please get busy immediately on that work! A large minority of Americans elected this man despite his obvious character flaws and odious behavior. If more reporting could have helped to prevent this dangerous and shameful page in our history, then report and opine on his character continuously to prevent a second term of his presidency before we lose our sense of what character in a leader looks like.

c f. gehrke
Tue, 01/09/2018 - 10:33am

Thanks Phil. Point well taken. Often there are some important clues to the motivations for a policy and the policy's implications proposed by a candidate if we knew more about the candidate proposing them. Another example is the far better understanding of U. S. Grant, his presidency, military career, and him as person, obtained by reading the recent biography of him. It is very different than the usual run of the mill description of him and his presidency.

Tue, 01/09/2018 - 11:26am

the best defense is an Offense and t player it to the hilt?
check congress record of all they have passed.while you where busy .....with "gossip'
A gossips mouth is the devil`s mailbag .see harper bazar /horosopes 2018

Tue, 01/09/2018 - 12:22pm

'My point here is not to weigh in on President's Trump's supposed psychological fitness, or lack thereof, for his office.'

One needs to be blind to ignore how unfit this 'president' is and the danger he presents as president.

Sadden to hear yet another Republican attempt to ignore how dangerously unfit and incompetent this president is. He is a clear and present danger to our country. Period.

Tue, 01/09/2018 - 2:16pm

Good Luck! You will never be all that certain what you are getting when you check that box. This assumes that you really care! Are you saying that you didn't know Bill and Hillary were/are a couple of moral scoundrels even though you probably voted for them? Ted Kennedy, "The Lion of the Senate"??? And don't kid us that the Press will shine the light on character flaws, they are as biased as everyone else. This is the problem we've put our selves into when we're allowed so much power, attention, expectation and celebrity to move from the Legislative branches to the Executive branches. Not that legislators are pure. But being one of 100 or 400 or what ever number of equal members limits the influence and damage that can be inflicted by one individual. This is what a civically illiterate society gets you.

Tue, 01/09/2018 - 4:06pm

Phil's ideas are all well and good in theory, but how do you separate character from the positions a candidate takes on the issues, the actions she takes in office, and he how he votes (or files suit or criminal charges). The article in this issue on Bill Schuette perfectly illustrates this point. His political career seems to be defined more by ambition than by a true commitment to public service.

John Q. Public
Tue, 01/09/2018 - 8:23pm

This sounds great, but to what end? The voters show time and again that character issues are not important to them. Even after we become aware of egrigious shortcomings in office holders, we respond by re-electing them. That's typically after getting the endorsement of the keepers of good character in the media, even in the wake of the candidates' character failures having been laid bare. See, e.g., Bill Clinton, Kwame Kilpatrick, Jase Bolger, Rick Snyder.

Wed, 01/10/2018 - 2:42am

In the last election, we did ignore all the gossip about Donald Trump and did focus on the documented corrupt actions of Hellary Clinton.

Wed, 01/10/2018 - 12:04pm

There have been many leaders over the history of man who have been earnest, incorruptible, honest and have governed with the full intention of serving and the betterment of their people. The only problem is depending on who you ask, this list includes Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Castro, Mugabe and Chavez.