David Broder, columnist, The Washington Post: “The harder part is how we can help voters figure out who the hell these candidates really are and how they might operate. I think we’ve slowly gotten better at probing those questions. And while it verges on the personal, it’s important to know what kind of family forces shaped these people. If somebody has grown up in a dysfunctional family, that’s going to affect the way that they behave. You don’t have to look any further than the examples of Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich to see how that can change politics and policy in the country. But it’s also important for us, and I think it’s something we’re capable of doing without pretending to be psychiatrists, to find out about what their peer relationships have been, what their relationships with their staffs have been over the years.
“One thing that I’m engaged in is trying to get these candidates for President to talk about what they’ve learned or sensed about the relationship between Presidents and Congresses. It’s been a perpetual problem for every recent President. ‘What have you learned from that?’ I was down asking Governor Bush that question last week, asking him about what he took away from watching his father struggle with Congress. Those are things that are not intensely personal but maybe will give people clues as to who these people really are and how they might function in the office.” Judy Woodruff, Anchor and senior correspondent, CNN: “Alan Simpson, would you agree that it is important for the press to look at the family background, closely deeply at the family background of these candidates? That it does matter whether they’ve had, whether you call it a dysfunctional family or whatever, and we do need to know their personal relationships with staff and others to see how they interact with people? Are these important?”
Alan Simpson, former senator, Director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University: “I think, Judy, the term is “closely deeply.” What is “closely deeply”?… Steve Brill made the comment that there are many media sources who have spent thousands of dollars and man and woman hours in Odessa, Texas with somebody who’s a drug counselor hoping and praying they can find the person who counseled George W. Bush if he had this problem. In my mind this a total waste of energy and human endeavor. But that’s my view and that’s only because I was on federal probation for shooting mailboxes and slugged a cop in Laramie. And I think those things should go unwritten, for God’s sake.
“But they looked all over for that when I ran, so I put it out there first. And Dick Cheney, when he went through his confirmation, had a DUI when he was at the University of Wyoming. He told Sam Nunn, if you’re going to bring that up I’m going to bring it up first. So it’s easy to talk about all that stuff when you’re out there in the fourth estate, but how would you feel if it were happening to you? And that’s the difference. I think it’s absurd to dig deeply into the life of a person who is 50 years old about what they did when they were 18 because everybody in this room will flunk that test. So what is the purpose of that? The public perceives it as banal and offensive and puerile. And when they see the person from the media asking that question they think the guy’s a jerk. And their question immediately in their own head is, ‘What did you do?’ That’s where [Bill] Bradley unnerved the whole crew [on a Sunday morning interview show] when he turned to the bunch and said, ‘Did you ever smoke pot?’”
Susan Page, White House Bureau Chief, USA Today: “One of the legacies of the Monica Lewinsky controversy or scandal is that Americans hope to have a President that they know a lot less about, a lot less about his or her personal life. And I think a lot of reporters feel that way, too. For various reasons, and some of them quite legitimate, we explored in great detail the most personal details about President Clinton, more than we wanted to know….
“I think you do have the standard of showing the relevance to his performance in office. So for instance, if you think a person had a dysfunctional family life growing up, that’s relevant only if you’re sure it relates to his ability to lead or to relate to Congress or to act in an honorable way. In itself, it seems to me that it’s not an appropriate subject to pursue in great depth.”
Michael Kelly, Editor in Chief, National Journal: “In 1992, when candidate Bill Clinton was confronted with Gennifer Flowers and with the draft issue, what was interesting to reporters covering him was not the specifics of either one of those alleged misdeeds. It was the mounting evidence, and evidence that mounted bit by bit and more by more over time and got quite serious, that in this candidate for the presidency you had a person who had an unusual relationship with the business of telling the truth. A person who was unusually willing in his answers to these issues to go much further than most people would in flatly denying things, to play games with the truth and with the semantics and so on, that was unusual. And I think reporters got a sense that this said something important in a fundamental, deep and important way about this person and what sort of President he might be, something that mattered.
“We more or less dropped it or it dropped itself or something. At any rate things went on. And we eventually got to the point where I think it became clear to a lot of people that this issue that people first suspected in 1992 was in fact core, that this was core to the whole presidency, the entire being of Bill Clinton as President. And it mattered a great deal, as we saw last year, in terms of what happened directly in his presidency. But we have taken away from that a kind of unthinking impulse that because the externalities of something might be the same, that we are obligated to somehow pay intense scrutiny to this sort of character issue, as we call it in shorthand, any time it arises. Did so and so use cocaine? Did so and so once have a run-in with the law? Is so and so divorced? Did so and so commit adultery?
“These things, in and of themselves, probably don’t matter. They don’t matter in the overwhelming majority of cases. The only times they do matter is when you have reason to think, from evidence, and I suppose even to some degree from gut instinct, that you’re dealing with somebody whose character is fundamentally flawed. Flawed in such a way that it actually is a job performance issue, that it would matter as to what sort of President that person would become. This is simply not the case, it seems to me, in the huge majority of these cases. If a certain candidate for the presidency went through a period of drug use or anything like that or infidelity in marriage or something 20 years ago, X number of years ago, in and of itself I don’t see that as something that perhaps we should report.”
Judy Woodruff: “Who is to determine who has a flawed character?”
Michael Kelly: “I’m perfectly willing to concede, having raised this point, that the divining of when something is appropriate to raise, when it does rise to this fundamental level, is perhaps an impossible question to answer. But I think we should at least be thinking about it….”
David Broder: “I think [I know] the way in which we can perhaps deal with this iffy kind of, this murky area that Michael Kelly was talking about. If we start with the public record and the public activities of public people, then we see what questions those raise. I’ll give an example. There was a presidential candidate a few cycles ago about whom I was writing a profile. I did what I normally do, which is say, ‘Whom should I talk to? Who are your friends in town?’ He mentioned Senator Dale Bumpers as one of his close friends. I went to see Bumpers and Bumpers said, ‘Why are you asking me about him?’ And I said, ‘Because he told me you’re one of his closest friends.’ He said, ‘He said that?’ That told me something about the character of the relationships that this particular candidate had or didn’t have.
“And that’s what leads you into saying what it is about this candidate that would make his relationships with political peers so attenuated as they are. And that’s important for a President because a President only gets stuff done by being able to persuade other politicians that it’s worth doing.”
Later, in an exchange with Nieman Curator Bill Kovach, David Broder touched again on this topic.
David Broder: “I’ve just started this most recent round of voter interviewing for our paper. And I don’t want to be held to this if [what happens in the future] gives me some reason to reconsider. But what I’ve heard so far suggests to me that old-fashioned character questions are going to be very important this time around. I think the suspicion or the fear that some people had, that because the public didn’t want Bill Clinton thrown out of office that therefore character issues were not important, I think that’s probably going to turn out to be a misjudgment. I think what I’m hearing is American people want a damn near ironclad guarantee they won’t be embarrassed again by a President, that they won’t have the painful experience trying to explain to their children what these stories about the President are really about.”
Bill Kovach: “How does the press do that without probing so deeply into the personal experience of a candidate that they draw the public criticism they draw when they do that? I mean, the Pew survey says voters are interested in character but not in personal behavior so much. In [The Washington Post’s] Charles Krauthammer’s column the other day, a person says, ‘I’m a former psychiatrist and I can tell you that no matter how many hours I spend with a person probing their innermost secret I really don’t know them.’ So how does a journalist fill that void?”
David Broder: “I think we can, as reporters, explore the character of their relationships, particularly with their political peers. I’m fascinated by and I have yet to read a clear explanation about how Steve Forbes runs Forbes magazine. If he’s going to run the country, then I’d like to know something about how he runs Forbes magazine. That’s not probing into his private life. But it might actually give you a clue as to what his pattern at least of management would be that he would bring to the White House.”
Alan Simpson: “I think instead of the word ‘character,’ I’d use ‘integrity.’ Maybe they shouldn’t be in juxtaposition. But if you have integrity, nothing else matters, and if you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters. And I think that’s where people are going this time….
“I just say [about the press coverage], how deep do you go? When Judy Woodruff started [talking about this], the word was how ‘closely’ or how ‘deeply.’ And I’m just saying that if you as a craft want to go deeper, the American public will not be going with you. Because every single one of them has had something happen to them which they choose to leave out of their life. And it’s deep. Stuff that can mess up their marriages, can mess up their relations with their kids or their boss. And they don’t want that to come out. So why do they want to watch this futile exercise? You keep doing it, deep or shallow or whatever, and the American public will just turn you off.”
Bill Kovach: “I agree. And I agree with what David Broder said. That’s the conundrum. If the public wants a leader who is not going to embarrass them, but the public has no idea what these presidential candidates have in their personality and in their character, then how does the press help them come to the judgment that they are choosing the right person who is not going to embarrass them? That’s the problem we’ve got to solve.”
Susan Page: “I agree with something Senator Simpson said, which is that there should be some kind of standard of relevance to the office [for us] to explore personal behavior or questions of character. I do think you could do something at 18 that doesn’t really reflect on your character or your integrity as an adult whereas if you did it at age 30 it’s very relevant. And all the people who run for President have long careers, many of them in public life, lots of areas to explore how they behave. Whether they behaved with integrity, whether their peers trusted them, whether they misled the people they were representing. And that’s all totally fair game to cover. And it’s not that there’s a bright shining light that tells you when it’s appropriate to cover and when it’s not. But I think that is a general guideline that would be very useful for reporters to follow.”
Bill Kovach: “David Broder, anything to add?”
David Broder: “Just to underline Susan’s last remark. There is so much that’s accessible to us if we just do the reporting in their public lives. We ought to pretty well mine that before we decide we’ve got to go beyond that. The presidency, particularly, is an office that functions, if it functions at all, on the basis of the person in that office being able to establish relationships of trust and persuasion with other politicians and the public. The campaign itself is a good test of public persuasiveness. But we are better positioned than most individual voters are to be able to write about what those who have dealt with this person over the years in public roles have concluded about this person.
“…[A]s one who dismissed much too readily the view of Clinton that was developed over many years by the Arkansas press corps that dealt with him, I would not want to make that mistake again of ignoring sometimes the very different view that politicians have in their home states.”
Photo by Doug Mills, courtesy of AP Wide World Photos.