What debate coaches can't teach

This is their lives!" crowed anchor Peter Jennings as he launched ABC's "The Family Business," a two-hour news mini-series about the personal histories of presidential candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore. In the same month, The New York Times featured a front-page profile about the early "journeys" of the two candidates, and a Vanity Fair cover story probed the legacy of Mr. Bush's formative years.

Welcome to the most biographical campaign in American history.

Since last spring, campaign coverage has been dominated by a preoccupation with psychohistory, featuring countless news stories asking Bush and Gore to describe insights gained from the influence of their families, the guidance of teachers, and the force of momentous events. Each story implies the same underlying question: How will the lessons of personal history inform the policies of their presidency?

Never have we heard from so many childhood friends reminiscing about the candidates, or seen so many archival photo opportunities - Bush dressing up as an Andover cheerleader, Tipper and Al Gore snuggling in a four-for-a-dollar photo booth. Even Gore's senior thesis at Harvard was parsed and annotated for clues to his leadership.

It seems wise to wonder why this election finds us so fascinated with the remembrance of things past. Did it begin with the public's romance with John McCain's personal narrative? Is the interest in personal history driven by baby boomers looking for models to compose a coherent narrative of their own lives? Or by pundits, who can't resist putting the candidates and their famous fathers on the couch? Does a sound economy allow voters the luxury of focusing on character development? Or does a disillusionment with Clinton's character compel us to search the candidate's past for early warnings?

This interest in personal history underlines the powerful idea that a leader's authenticity resides in the ability to link the past with the present - to make sense of his experiences. The pundits and the public are demanding leaders who demonstrate they have the insight to learn from the past.

What we're really talking about is the source of conviction - that busy intersection where a leader's position on the issues and his character meet. Because we understand that leadership is not a role or a party platform, it is a point of view that results from creating meaning from the events and relationships of a lifetime.

Aldous Huxley described this dimension of leadership when he wrote, "Experience is not what happens to you; it is what you do with what happens to you."

The nature of this campaign, so focused on the inner workings of the candidates, and often deadlocked on the issues, requires a demanding dimension to the candidate's debate preparation. Both Gore and Bush should remember Woody Allen's cautionary tale about how he cheated on, and then failed, his college philosophy exam.

"I looked into the soul of the person sitting next to me," he said.

To capture the country, each candidate must use the debates to tell his own story: to explain how he has used lessons from the past as a blueprint to develop an authentic, one-of-a-kind leadership.

IT WILL not be enough for these candidates to tell us what they think; they must also tell us why. They must talk about their lives and hopes, explaining how the lessons of their personal history will inform the policies of their presidency. And they must do this without blurring the boundaries between public and private life.

An autobiographical campaign demands a compelling personal narrative from the men who wish to be president. No gifted wordsmith or debate coach can help. Because, as Woody Allen suggested, there can be no cheating on this inner homework.

Barbara Mackoff, a consulting psychologist and management educator in Seattle, is co-author of 'The Inner Work of Leaders' (Amacom).

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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