How can it be that the more press coverage we have of nominees and contenders for public office -- the quicker and more comprehensive and more widely disseminated the gush of information -- the harder it is to make a reasonable judgment about them? How can it be that the more we are exposed to material presumably meant to illumine the choices for us, the more we feel like the 85th animal in a pack of 2,000 thundering mindlessly into the sea? I have been thinking about this in relation to the Democratic and Republican candidates for president and also, in a way, about Judge Bork. It sometimes seems to me that the more the great public loudspeaker of our political culture tells me, the less I know.

Now, I suppose that in some degree the problem is mere circuit overload, the junking up of the process. I mean, can we really be talking about Paul Simon's earlobes and Bruce Babbitt's neck-jerks? The answer, alas, is yes and probably will be so long as candidates continue to be merchandised as properties and products. There is also the apparently insatiable need not just of the media, but also of the public and politicians, for clear-cut, high-stakes drama. Conflict is essential to such drama and if it is not natural, not there, it will nonetheless be found, created out of whatever materials are available -- not mendaciously, but just sort of instinctively as a way of telling a story or putting a public issue into some understandable framework.

Very often what is available for these purposes is the record, the printed or otherwise chronicled ledger of votes, statements, positions and actions on public questions. It is what happens to this record nowadays that interests me most. Thanks to marvelous electronic devices and the indefatigable efforts of lobbying groups on one side or the other of an issue, huge amounts of material of this kind can be instantly exhumed -- much more and much more speedily than in the old filing-cabinet days -- and dumped into our consciousness. Voted aye on this, nay on that, supported the crippling amendment in committee, was absent on the day of the crucial vote, etc. -- what are we to make of it?

We get an awful lot of offers of help on this from interpreters who hew to conventional lines. The liberal-vs.-conservative format is almost immediately put in place, in what we all sense is a superficial, jerry-built way, and the mass of material is tested against it. A lot of this has to do not with political philosophy at all, however, but with interest-group definitions of conservative and liberal, so that you can come up with those little charts that yield their somehow implausible percentages ("voted with the Americans for Democratic Action 96 percent of the time," "73 percent conservative voting record"). The other format that is almost immediately offered is the one that makes a very few votes or actions from the record suggest that either by his illiberality or his betrayal of conservatism or his inconsistency the public person under consideration is a real skunk.

I am always uncomfortable with these readings of the record. They may, of course, represent an essential and important truth. But they may equally just be lazy, instant herdthink. When I start to see those snippets of what Judge Bork said here or how Sam Nunn or Bob Dole or Joe Biden voted there, and the sweeping conclusions that tend to accompany them, I want to know a whole lot more about it. One of the great nonsenses of all time is that old chestnut: the record speaks for itself. The record does no such thing. From Richard Nixon to Gary Hart, whenever a public person gets in trouble on what we call a "character" or sheer humanity issue, he and his supporters will start trying to redirect our attention to this thing called "the record," meaning the checklist of votes and stands taken on various subjects over the years, the sum total of which is thought to have a claim on our loyalty. But neither this checklist nor the individual items occasionally singled out to show what a reprobate the public person is quite persuades. One always feels slightly uncomfortable with it, dissatisfied that in all this information one seems to lack the information that counts, the information that helps to explain.

I mean by that the circumstances in which these public actions were taken and the intentions of the person who took them. People who were not there at the time and who are not doing doctoral dissertations on a given political figure will never know all there is to know, but there are a few guideposts. First, I think you can ask yourself whether there are any surprises in the record. There should be. If there are not, I think you can safely conclude you are dealing with a robot. Sometimes commentators will make a big, negative thing out of surprises; the term used is "flip-flopping." But unless someone has a totally insane or totally opportunistic pattern of going back and forth, I think it is a sign of independence and a working mind. Yes, there should be evidence in the overall pattern of a consistent political philosophy and set of values. But importantly, this may -- I would say ideally should -- be something personal, individual, self-contrived, as distinct from merely following the pattern set out by some interest group or other or some bean-counting totter-up of liberal-vs.-conservative votes.

I would look next for stands that risked alienating a constituency or that otherwise cost the public person something. A record that comports entirely with my opinions but that was also politically very easy to create tells me nothing: it could have been made by a blotting-paper pol. And I would also look for movement, progression, what optimistically you could even call growth. Especially when the flip-flopping charge is made, or when some old stand is cited that now seems positively retrograde, try to figure out how much and in what ways both the politician and the times (and, if you're honest, you yourself) have changed.

All political change is not opportunistic. All good votes were not taken for good reasons. All those instant tabulations of vice and virtue are suspect. In the din of "information" that comes your way when some public job is to be filled, it helps to remember that you are looking for a moral person, a courageous person, a strong person and one who is neither intellectually in thrall to somebody else's political ideas or, as seems too often to be the case, just intellectually dead.

1987, Newsweek, Inc. Reprinted by permission; all rights reserved.

Does the record speak for itself? No. It does no such thing.