Democracy - sometimes it can bring you to tears

PRO football looks like an effete sport this fall compared with Washington politics. Nominees for the most august of American institutions, the Supreme Court, have been manhandled like rookie quarterbacks on third down with long yardage.

And we're not even talking about the gang-tackling among the presidential candidates, leaving two contestants limping off the playing field for the rest of the game.

When anybody brings up how rough the going is getting, somebody else gives the simplistic answer: Well, that's '80s journalism for you. Cameras with prying minds everywhere, keeping public figures under 24-hour surveillance - and no more gentleman's code to restrain the press from tattling all.

The other, even more popular answer appears to be: This is the year of the ``character issue'' - as if that issue were as recent an invention as the telephoto lens.

We are so eager to make everything up to date - even our excuses.

The fact is, the ``character issue'' has loomed large in elective politics from the very start, and in resolving who has character - and above all, who hasn't - American democracy resembles no sport more than mud-wrestling.

George Washington, everybody's plaster saint today, had to fight rumors that questionable business deals brought him his Shenandoah Valley land, and worse, that in his youth, he was somewhat too involved with his best friend's wife.

Few presidents have escaped gossip, including such men of conspicuous character as Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson.

``Any man familiar with public life realizes the foul gossip that ripples beneath the surface about almost any public man'' - this is not the protest of a Hart or Ginsburg but of Theodore Roosevelt, who was accused of drinking to excess, the second favorite topic of scandal-mongers next to adultery.

Indeed, the substantive complaints in the attempted impeachment of Andrew Johnson got overshadowed by the more sensational charge that he was a drunk.

The problem with the ``character issue'' is not that we take it too seriously but that we don't take it seriously enough, making our criteria too narrow.

It is as if we think America is still a theocracy run by puritan ministers, with Cotton Mather remaining an all-sufficient model for the White House. Such a model might assure us Calvin Coolidge for life.

The ``character issue,'' taken too glibly, has produced a political rhetoric in which candidates habitually embrace ``principles'' instead of ``expediency'' and sacrifice self-interest in the cause of ``public service.''

Not a word about ambition or love of power!

And so the distance between the ideal and the practice grows, producing the usual results of such a split - hypocrisy on the politician's part and cynicism on ours.

Demanding heroes, we do not reward our leaders for being just plain competent - and we do not allow them to be just plain human.

No wonder, in politics, acting experience counts.

Democracy ``works,'' as we keep telling ourselves, and we are mostly right. There is no overwhelming evidence that Gary Hart or Joseph Biden should be president, nor is it urgently in the general interest of the nation that Robert Bork or Douglas Ginsburg has to be the next Supreme Court justice. But a communal cost has been paid in the way they were rejected, as if a kind of punitive ritual were being acted out.

When Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder decided not to run for the Democratic nomination for president, an emotional scene ensued, for which she was generally criticized, as if her tears disqualified her anyway according to the terms of the ``character issue'' - she was just too ``soft.''

Under the circumstances, nobody paid much attention to the substance of her remarks, nor has anybody followed up on them since. What she seemed to be saying was that she could find no way to run for president and keep her shape as a person - remain a complete human being.

What an awful indictment of public life!

If, in fact, this was what brought her to tears, we might well ask whether, as was assumed, she was crying for herself or shedding her tears for all of us.

A Wednesday and Friday column

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