Mining character for clues

We study people's pasts – especially the pasts of people who rise to prominence – hoping to understand how they will act in the future. But humans can always surprise us.

RON EDMONDS/AP
THEN-MINORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL SPOKE AT THE 2008 REPUBLICAN NATIONAL CONVENTION IN ST. PAUL, MINN.

A person’s past is the only clue most of us have to go on, especially when we take a leap of faith and put our trust in them. So we ask about their lives – where they came from, what influenced them. Employers pore over résumés and tap references from former bosses, trying to make a right choice about a new hire. Companionship-seekers pay close attention to their date’s back story to better understand what they might be getting themselves into. Large portions of the educational-industrial complex are devoted to the study of great men and women in the hopes that only the good parts of history will repeat themselves.

Take, for example, this Monitor profile of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky (click here to read it). Over the past few years, the Monitor has profiled former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D) of California, Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio, President Obama, and world leaders such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin. A profile is a biography with news in its nose cone, an examination of what makes a prominent person tick.

The aim is to try to foretell how future policy decisions will unfold. Was there something in ancestry or childhood – a mentor, a triumph, a close shave – that can unlock the secret to what he or she might do? Did Anwar Sadat’s Sudanese grandmother influence his boldness in Egypt’s 1973 war with Israel and his even bolder peacemaking afterward? Can the pivotal point in Nelson Mandela’s life be found in his Xhosa culture, his time spent in an Anglo school or Robben Island prison, or his mastery of boxing and ballroom dancing?

Most lives are erected brick by brick. Character is an edifice, not an anecdote, and even strongly defined characters can surprise us. Mr. McConnell’s Senate might find ways to make deals across the aisle and with the White House. He’s led along those lines before. Or he could see his purpose as holding the Obama administration in check while championing a party-first agenda. He’s been there, too. Francine Kiefer’s profile explores the possibilities.

In a useful profile like Francine’s, showing is better than telling. A person’s words are important, but actions speak louder. If that were not the case, the great English-language wordsmith William Shakespeare wouldn’t himself be a mystery. His vivid portraits of the mighty, the foolish, and the tragic who have strutted and fretted on history’s stage constitute what many of us think we know about Roman senators, medieval kings, Renaissance merchants. But the Bard’s great deeds were most likely done locked in a room with a quill pen and  paper. We know virtually nothing about him.

Not so with our public figures. We’ll clearly see between now and 2016 how the McConnell Senate, the Boehner House, and the Obama presidency interact – whether they are driven by party or personality or they play nice for the sake of the country. A telling moment or fateful exchange might determine what happens. Character and ideas might govern. A profile provides hints. History will tell the tale.

John Yemma is editor-at-large of the Monitor. He can be reached at yemma@csmonitor.com.

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About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

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The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

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