When presidential candidates court voters, they offer a product that is a combination of issues and personality. If voting were a purely intellectual exercise, then issues would be all that mattered. But deciding who should be president is a matter of instinct as well as intellect. People vote for people, not just for ideas. Voters want to know how a particular candidate is different from others, and how ideals and background influence that candidate's actions.
The character issue has always been a part of American politics. No president has escaped intrusive scrutiny and some degree of vilification. George Washington was portrayed by some contemporaries as a scheming monarchist and worse. Bill Clinton's treatment has been mild compared to what Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson endured.
Journalists have had a mixed record in reporting about character. They have long supplied gossip as well as fact, but they also have intermittently exercised considerable discretion about what they report. There has been little consistency. When Franklin Roosevelt had the presidential train re-routed so he could visit his friend Lucy Mercer, reporters traveling with him wrote nothing about it. Compare that with much of the press corps' recent Monica fixation.
Standards change, but there is no consensus about whether they are changing for better or worse, or even what the standard of the moment is. Full disclosure about candidates sounds like a nice journalistic premise, but if it is employed thoughtlessly it can override relevance and good taste.
In the early stages of the 2000 campaign, news organizations are trying to figure out where they are in terms of covering character. There is a sense of having gone too far in reporting so many lurid particulars of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, but there is little inclination to back off from intense examination of the personal lives of prospective presidents. With no supporting evidence, reporters ask candidates, "Have you ever committed adultery?" and embark on scavenger hunts, looking for any ancient misstep that can be translated into a headline. As a matter of journalistic ethics, this comes awfully close to anarchy.
Before the campaign and its coverage become even more intense, thought should be given to standards that can guide character coverage. Here are a few suggestions:
GERMANENESS. Reporters should concentrate on those aspects of a candidate's background that are likely to affect the performance of official duties. The story of John McCain's experience as a prisoner of war deserves to be told because it might influence a decision about sending American forces into combat. Superfluous personal history, however, such as George W. Bush's fraternity activity while in college, does not merit comment.
ZONE OF PRIVACY. Even presidential candidates are entitled to keep some aspects of their lives out of public view. Marital problems should not be revealed unless there is good reason to do so. Similarly, candidates' children should be left alone unless they have some clear involvement with public policy. Bill Bradley has said, "The public has a right to know if I'm a crook, but not if I'm a sinner, because we all are." Within the limits of the nature of a particular sin, he makes a valid point.
TIMELINESS. A statute of limitations should be established, with its length depending on the nature of the transgression. Recent drug use is one thing; occasional college-age marijuana smoking many years ago is something else. At some point, old news is no longer news.
A comprehensive list of guidelines would be considerably more detailed. A key element in shaping such criteria should be the public's need, not merely it's right, to know. As with other aspects of political reporting, the journalist's goal when covering character should be to provide voters with information that will help them cast an informed ballot. That encompasses a broad but not infinite range of topics.
Some journalists may believe that any such guidelines are too constraining. Maybe the voters should be told everything that reporters can find, and then decide for themselves what they want to take seriously and what they want to ignore. An argument might be made that self-censorship never is in the public's interest, so dig and deliver.
Of course, though, news organizations censor themselves every day, when they withhold gory pictures of a traffic accident or protect the identity of a crime victim. These are acts of basic decency.
Political journalism would benefit from an infusion of such decency. The public needs useful information about the character of those who would be president, but it does not need gratuitous sensationalism. Americans might value journalists and journalism more highly if news judgments were made on a higher plane than is common today. Character coverage in this presidential race would be a good place to start.