After a negative campaign, questions of character linger

No doubt about it: This has been a remarkably negative campaign. Torrents of news media analysis have already probed the extent of that negativity, inquired into its causes, and tried to assign blame. The real question is, ``So what?'' Never mind who started it. How's it going to end? What are its ramifications? The negativity itself may not last. Once in office, the next president will no doubt turn all sweetness and light - in the time-honored tradition of politicians who publicly rail at each other and privately play tennis together. But what will his getting there tell us about him? Worth looking at are two points: the issue of character, and the issue of conflict resolution.

To begin with, the negativity of the campaign calls into question the candidates' integrity - their ``freedom from corrupting influence or practice,'' as my dictionary defines the word. Is each candidate really ``his own man,'' or is each in the grip of the handlers and packagers? As recently as last spring, each possessed a gentlemanly, sportsmanlike, slightly bumbling, and not entirely immodest public demeanor. All that has strangely changed: These days the characters seem more caddish, nastier, slicker, more prideful. It would appear that they've consented to manipulations that have altered their language and image.

Excusable? Some say so - applaud them, in fact, for becoming tougher campaigners. Yet both candidates have asserted they don't like the negative tenor of the campaign. If so, why not stop it - unless they're no longer fully in control of their own thoughts? But leaders take control. Are they leaders? If not, to whom have they surrendered control?

These questions, alas, won't evaporate once the White House is reached. They'll leave behind a whiff of suspicion. Is this the real president (the public may ask), or merely the front man for some hidden agenda? Have I helped elect a president or a promotional agency? Having once given consent to a manipulation of thought, what defense does this man have against further manipulation - by a wily foreign power, say, or a clever set of domestic ideologues?

If negativism betrays such flaws in character, it also shows up a lack of necessary skills. Skirting the important for the merely interesting, the campaign has failed to dwell on the major global issues that will face the next president. These include:

The risks and rewards of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's new policies.

The potential for a major shift in world power as relations thaw among China, the Soviet Union, and Japan.

The impact on American trade of Europe's ``single market'' plan for 1992.

The growing authority of the ``green'' movement, here and overseas, as the greenhouse effect and the depletion of the ozone layer become better understood.

A world population that will increase by another billion, mostly in developing nations, by the year 2000.

These, along with one or another of the world's many conventional wars, are the world-class policy issues of the coming years. Every one of them requires skills of negotiation, balance, and compromise - all founded on a disposition to resolve conflict.

But where, in this year's campaign, has conflict resolution been publicly practiced? What indication have we that, when the going gets tough, either candidate knows how to rise to statesmanlike stature, stake out a position above the fray, and move a nation toward consensus? Has not the negativism of the campaign shown precisely the opposite?

The ``So what,'' then, is real. Little wonder that surveys show an electorate jaded, disgusted, and repelled. Whoever wins tomorrow needs to mount a strenuous campaign to win the hearts and minds of a citizenry that will have given him only their votes. A Monday column

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