Substance Vs. Character

Published January 1, 1988

It is now less than a year until the 1988 election, and we therefore end our self-imposed silence on matters of presidential politicking with a brief reflection on the fates of Gary Hart and Joseph Biden.

There is something deeply troubling about the Hart and Biden episodes, and Harvard historian Alan Brinkley put his finger on it. Why, Brinkley asked after Hart’s downfall, didn’t the widespread rumors of Thomas Jefferson’s and Martin Luther King Jr.’s sexual adventures, rampant in both the early 1800s and the 1960s, do severe damage to these men’s public reputations? What did these men have that Hart, and later Biden, lacked?

Americans admired Jefferson and King, Brinkley argues, “not just for their characters but because they … seemed to stand for something larger than themselves. Mr. Hart, despite his frequent claims to the contrary, did not. In creating doubts about his character, he created doubts about the only thing he had offered the public.”

Brinkley continued, presciently as things turned out: “On this point, at least, Mr. Hart seemed little different from any other candidate. It may be, therefore, that the collapse of his candidacy is less important for what it tells us about his campaign or the press than for what it reveals about the condition of American public life as a whole: the absence of any meaningful public philosophy capable of mobilizing the electorate behind something more substantive than ‘character.’ ”

Alan Brinkley thinks that things weren’t always this way: “As recently as a generation ago, American public life embraced [a] … seemingly powerful set of beliefs: commitments to such things as the importance of middle class values, the beneficence of capitalism, the desirability and inevitability of progress, the special moral qualities of American democracy. Politics then appeared to have a ‘vital center.’ America seemed to stand for something tangible, to have—in phrases popular in the 1950s and 1960s—a ‘national purpose’ and a ‘national character.’ ”

That is not where we are today, evidently: “By the late 1970s, Americans no longer talked very much about the ‘national purpose’ and the ‘national character.’ To many, these concepts now seemed dangerous mechanisms for serving the interests of some groups and violating the rights of others. Yet as valid as those criticisms may have been, we have not seemed ready in the years since to accept as the alternative a world in which our only shared value is a commitment to maintaining an open intellectual marketplace in which every group can make its claim, in which all ideas receive equal credence, in which there is no commonly accepted conception of what is good or right or just.

“Evidence of our discontent lies in the enormous range of efforts across the political spectrum to find again something transcendent in which to believe—efforts to rise above the parochial interest of groups and discover some common definition of America as a nation.”

One hopes that Alan Brinkley is right about the ubiquity of such efforts to define a new public philosophy, capable of combining the concepts of “national interest” and “national purpose.” We know of several; and, among other things, that is what we think we’re doing in these pages. But before we leave this question of “character” vs. “substance,” it is interesting to reflect for just a moment more on what happened to Senator Biden in September.

The overwhelming focus of media attention in the Biden affair was on the candidate’s fudging of his academic record and his plagiarism of the words of others. Most devastating, on this latter score, was the oft-repeated tape of Biden giving, without attribution, a virtually word-for-word replay of a rhetorically flashy peroration by British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock. But in all the brouhaha one question was never raised. What in the world was Joe Biden doing citing Neil Kinnock? Did anyone stop to think about the platform, not on which Kinnock stood in order to go to university, but on which Kinnock ran, to resounding defeat, in the British election?

For those with deficient (or mercifully foggy) memories, it should be recalled that Kinnock’s party proposed the unilateral nuclear disarmament of Great Britain, the expulsion of U.S. forces from the U.K., and, despite a rhetorical commitment to NATO, the virtual dismemberment of the North Atlantic alliance. Kinnock ran, in short, on what amounted to the British equivalent of an isolationist platform. Sure, his peroration was a spellbinder—a great appeal to emotion, a lilting Welsh account, Brahms playing softly in the background. But what about the substance? One imagines that P. W. Botha can give a stem-winding peroration, too. What would happen if a Botha speech was “borrowed” by an American presidential candidate?

The trouble with Joe Biden and Gary Hart was, at bottom, the Gertrude Stein problem: voters sensed that there was “no there there.” Alan Brinkley is right on this point, as he is on the problem of a country that remains deeply divided on questions of first principles: about itself and about its relationship to the world. But the only way to address the latter, and far graver, problem is to peel through the layers of press agentry and engage in argument over ideas. That is a responsibility that falls on candidates of all partisan stripes, as well as on a national press that itself seems obsessed with the packaging rather than the product.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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