The Character Issue

THE private lives of candidates have become a campaign issue again. Reporters are confronting Democratic presidential front-runner Bill Clinton with rumors of extramarital affairs. The allegations, published mainly in supermarket tabloids, focus attention on the "character issue."

While that term has been hackneyed, character is a crucial concern. Extramarital affairs are wrong. Yet the press, and voters, should guard against making "character" a simplistic, reductionist matter. In Governor Clinton's case, the rumors have remained rumors. He and his wife, Hillary, acknowledge their marriage has not been "perfect" and want privacy. Until more substantiated claims of misbehavior are raised, they are entitled to it.

The Clintons presented their case on CBS's "60 Minutes" Sunday evening. The governor did not deny the adultery charge, saying it was a matter between a married couple. The two also said today they love each other in a "strong marriage."

Should candidates answer a list of all prurient rumors the press hears? The "tabloidization" of politics is a real danger. In the name of "character" voters may be manipulated to the detriment of the electoral process. "Character" should not become another "pledge of allegiance" issue with which to tarnish opponents and perhaps cheat voters out of legitimate candidates.

If in its reporting, however, the press finds many sources with no ax to grind that verify a pattern of misbehavior by officeholders or aspirants, that's a genuine issue. One-time mistakes or isolated problems don't in themselves add up to disqualifying character flaws. In 1988 Gary Hart's political demise resulted as much from the poor judgment he used in handling the Donna Rice incident, as from the incident itself.

At least one recent newspaper column expressed the view that if Clinton had an extramarital affair he is unfit for office. By that test, as we now know, many past presidents who served well weren't fit for their high office.

This does not excuse immorality. But as more candidates emerge from the 1960s generation, a time of cultural whirlwind and license, questionable behavior may emerge too. It needs to be put into perspective, not jumped on by a moral lynch mob.

How are judgments reached? Does an extramarital affair equal two years of marijuana use in college? What about a candidate who is "faithful" to his wife, but mistreats her? What about a candidate who spent a decade pressing party machine buttons in a gross play for power, versus the candidate who once smoked dope but has spent years fighting reform battles on behalf of the poor?

A full picture of candidates must emerge. Wisdom, perception, courage are character issues. So are greed and hubris. Can a candidate effectively form and lead political coalitions? Make decisions? Weigh interests? Manage? What is his or her sense of fairness and justice?

These are the questions Americans need answered.

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