The word is out that last week's political result mean the "character" issue is receding and the substantive (or "real") issues are gaining ground. In consequence, there has been much rejoicing, not just among Kennedy people sick and tired of the Chappaquiddick drag, but also among people who see the dissection of a candidate's personality or character as a distraction from the main business at hand. That business is, of course, in the lingo, the issues -- the blessed, boring, life-or-death, what-would-you-do-about-inflation and where-do-you-stand-on-solar-energy issues.
I have trouble with this. It's not just that I think the human qualities of the people running for office are as important as their positions on public questions. I also don't think the two can be disentangled. I'm not making an anti-Kennedy pitch here: I do believe Chapaquiddick and its unexplained aftermath must be high in the thoughts of voters weighing Kennedy's fitness for the office; but I also believe he has certain personal characteristics more suitable than some of Carter's for the job. The point is just that we aren't electing memos to office. We aren't sending elegantly crafted aides-memoire to negotiate with the heads of other states. The presidency can't be reduced to paper or ideas -- not even lots of paper and very good ideas.
Part of the resistance to the view that a candidate's particular human nature matters is probably a result of the more squalid and trivial things we all read about them -- and deplore, but keep on reading. I love the gossip, and it has to get really awfully raunchy for me to think ill of it; and surely it too adds to the useful sum total of what we know about our politicians, though God will strike me dead if I try to convince you that that's why I read it. But it also needs to be said that neither this kind of titillating material nor the extravagant and presumptuous psychologizing about the candidates that often passes for political analysis, represents the full range -- or anything like it -- of the personal judgments and inquiries we should be making.
There are people running for public office whose views are all but identical to mine, or who have dazzlingly smart and unusual ideas or who otherwise have some intellectual and political attributes that make them attractive to me -- and whom I would not vote for in a contest pitting them against my neighbor's dog. The dog is a better judge of people, perhaps, than they, or more reliable as a friend, or the proprietor of a better set of values. People are more than their opinions and intentions. Of their stands on the issues themselves it is essential to ask, first, how they reached these stands, and second, whether the stand has any relevance to the way things will turn out -- i.e., whether they have a gift for making things happen in a political environment -- or for knowing when to go down in flames for a principle.
With the advent of balck political power in the 1960s, a lot of white politicians who had stoutly resisted the civil-rights actions that freed the blacks in the first place became their most ardent champions, expediently attuned to their every need. I say: bully for the political process -- that's exactly how it should have turned out. But I give it, at best, one cheer. You can overdo the lonely, independent, profiles-in-courage bit. But there is still something very impressive to me about a politician who ends up in a risky or unaccustomed place, one at odds with his political setting, because he was willing to learn or think hard or credit something unexpected he saw.
That is what I would call a "character" question; not that I would demand kamikaze flights of virtue and independence, only that I wouldn't automatically give my fealty and political heart to some guy who held all the right opinions from my point of view, but who did so mainly because he lived in a place where they were profitable, necessary and chic.
By and large Ted Kennedy's views on the issues don't do much for me. I don't share them. And for a time they seemed to have been acquired in a kind of suspect, all-of-a-sudden, wholesale way. Not very discriminating, not -- I thought -- too much "felt." But he has, to my surprise, stuck to them in a way that engages wonder and even admiration of a kind. He didn't, as I had expected, start scuttling to the right in his contest with Carter. If anything, from the point of view of some of us who think, on the big things, he's wrong, he made it worse. Some people say this is just the evidence of a political calculation (or miscalculation) of the temper of the electorate on his part. I'm not sure he isn't sticking with conviction -- score one for "character."
Around now, I should confess that "character" and human qualities in general, however, do not mean to me, in a political context, only goody-two-shoes behavior. I have known candidates who did not seem to me mean enough to be president, or sly enough, traits indispensable to getting things to happen.
I know people who are plenty mean and sly, but don't have the metabolism or fortitude (some day someone smart is going to do a monograph on the function of sheer exhaustion in policymaking in the Capital, and he will be right on the money). And I know people who may have all the requisite qualities of goodness, meanness, slyness, strength, energy, wit and wisdom (well, a lot of some of those qualities, anyway), who just don't have the temperament for the presidency or other high offices. They don't have that essential ability to involve themselves personally 100 percent of the time -- and yet to develop an impersonal, detached, forgiving nature to sustain their humiliations and drubbings. They don't have the right neuroses, in other words.
All right: of course the substance of the issues is important, paramount. What is right, what is fair, what is just, what will work, what will advance the well-being of Americans and their freedom and do right by others around the world -- these are the views, the positions we argue about. And I'm not about to say that you shouldn't judge a candidate by what he thinks ought to happen. I'm only saying ought-to's, as every editorial writer knows, come cheap. Some things can be more expensive. Making it happen is one. Another is having the "character" to back off if you see it's wrong.