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A TELLING TIME FOR AMERICA : The Character of Candidates: What Do We Need to Know?

<i> William Schneider is a contributing editor to Opinion. </i>

What purpose was served by the mortification of Gary Hart? For one thing, maybe conservatives will stop complaining about how the press is always biased in favor of liberals. But Hart’s downfall serves a larger purpose. It helps prevent spectacles like the mortification of Ronald Reagan, now occurring before a special committee of Congress. We make candidates go through trial by ordeal over trivial matters so important mistakes--Iran- contra --won’t happen.

The U.S. political system has one big defect. Once a President is elected, we’re stuck for four years. No matter what mistakes he makes, no matter how low his credibility sinks, it is difficult to get rid of a President once he takes office. As we learned with Richard M. Nixon and as we are learning again with Reagan, you can’t remove a President who has lost the confidence of the nation unless he breaks the law and gets caught holding the smoking gun. Parliamentary systems don’t have this problem. If a leader makes a bad mistake, he can be ousted through a vote of no confidence. The wrenching experience of a scandal is not required.

That is why we have such long, grueling, expensive and demanding presidential campaigns. We have to find out everything important about a potential President before he is elected--meaning before it’s too late. As Hart said in his speech to the American Newspaper Publishers Assn. on Tuesday, “We’ve . . . experienced a level of examination, scrutiny and testing, including deeply personal questions asked by total strangers, that could only be considered normal in the most public of lives.”

Any candidate who goes through a two-year presidential campaign is certain, sooner or later, to face a crisis. That’s how we find out what they are made of, whether they can take the heat. Some, like Hart and George McGovern and Edward M. Kennedy, fail the test and are declared unfit for the world’s most powerful office. Others, like Jesse Jackson, manage to handle their crises rather well.

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The system is far from perfect. Once in a while we eliminate a good candidate, like Edmund S. Muskie in 1972. Even worse, the system sometimes allows a character like Nixon to get through. It is a brutal system, as Hart can testify. But by and large it works. We find out everything we want to know about the candidates’ character, temperament, integrity and judgment. (With Nixon, there was ample evidence of character flaws. The voters chose to take a chance. We lost.)

Do the voters really care that much about a candidate’s sex life? Actually, Americans consider adultery a serious matter. In a 1985 survey by the National Opinion Research Center, 87% of the public said that adultery was always or almost always wrong. By comparison, 77% considered homosexuality always or almost always wrong. The difference, apparently, is that adultery is a willful act that harms another person. But surely we have had good Presidents who have fooled around. Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy come to mind. One reason we didn’t care then is that we didn’t know. There was a gentlemen’s agreement between politicians and the press: Foibles like drunkenness and sexual exploits went unreported. The people didn’t need to know such things.

Now we have higher standards of conduct for the press and for public officials. Good. Kennedy, for instance, was susceptible to improper influence because of his relationship with a woman connected to organized-crime figures. What bothers most people is not the sex itself, but what irresponsible sexual behavior says about a candidate’s character and judgment. In Hart’s case, what it said was devastating. There is no reason why personal qualities should be less important to voters than policy positions. After all, once a President takes office, he can change his policies. It is much harder for him to change his character.

Last week was almost as bad for Reagan as it was for Hart. Act II of the Iran- contra drama opened as the joint House-Senate investigating committee heard its first witness, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard V. Secord. Act I, which dealt mostly with the Iran arms deal, came to a climax with the release of the Tower Commission Report on Feb. 26. The President acknowledged he had been trading arms for hostages, the Tower Commission called it “a very unprofessional operation” and the public docked him 20 points in his approval rating.

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Act II, focusing on the diversion of profits from the arms deal to the contras in Nicaragua, is potentially far more damaging. The President has claimed all along that he knew nothing about this illegal diversion of funds. The questions before Congress are whether the President is lying and whether he broke the law.

Last week’s testimony by Secord, the key man in the contra funding operation, was not encouraging. He said that National Security Council staff members told him Reagan knew about and approved of his efforts. He said he “assumed” that the director of the Central Intelligence Agency was keeping the President informed. He claimed that congressional testimony had been altered to obscure Reagan’s role. He testified that profits from the arms deal were treated as government funds by the NSC, so they were illegally used to aid the contras. And he said that the prices charged for arms were inflated to maximize the funds available for the contras . What saved the President--so far--was Secord’s acknowledgment that “I have no direct, first-hand knowledge about what the President knew or didn’t know.”

Of course anything that destroys Reagan also destroys Vice President George Bush. The hearings were not good for him either. Secord revealed that Bush telephoned Lt. Col. Oliver L. North to offer praise after North had been fired from the NSC. He suggested there had been a meeting between Bush and Felix Rodriguez, who ran the contra resupply operation; the vice president has denied knowledge of the operation. A handwritten note from Bush has been found in North’s files, praising North for his efforts to help the contras. Still, no evidence directly implicating the vice president has appeared.

The fact is, Bush’s judgment has been cast into almost as much doubt as Hart’s. For three months after the Iran arms deal was made public last fall, Bush was suspected of being deeply involved. No evidence of any direct involvement was found, and the Tower Commission hardly mentioned him. In fact, Bush seemed conspicuous by his absence. After all, he was the foreign-policy professional in the White House. He’s the one who should have known better.

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All this has eroded Bush’s standing as front-runner for the 1988 Republican nomination. Bush’s decline has been less dramatic than Hart’s because Bush enjoys a stronger base--the support of Reagan loyalists. Hart had no real base in the Democratic Party. Hart was not an advocacy politician. He had no hard core of supporters who felt that he spoke for them. So when he got into trouble, his support collapsed in a free fall. The Democrats now have no front-runner, while the Republicans have a wounded front-runner. Iran- contra hearings and the Hart scandal had a similar effect. They leveled the playing field in both parties. Both nominations are wide open.

The Democrats have the bigger problem. Not a single politician of stature is running for the Democratic nomination. Only Jesse Jackson has a national reputation, and his is mixed. There is no man to beat. And with no front-runner, the meaning of a primary victory will change.

Another effect of Hart’s withdrawal is to free up a considerable pool of contributors and activists. It may also encourage new candidates to enter the race, or reconsider their decision not to run. Conservative Democrats with money and influence will beg Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn and former Virginia Gov. Charles S. Robb to reconsider. Liberals will approach New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo and Arkansas Sen. Dale Bumpers. Moderates will be seen meeting with Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley.

They may not be interested. Candidates for President these days must sacrifice not only privacy, but dignity. They have to spend their time suffering fools gladly. We have reached the point where politicians like Cuomo and Nunn diminish their stature by running for President.

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The press will now be emboldened to look into the private life of all candidates. Every newspaper aspires to uncover a mini-Watergate and bring down a front-runner. While the public does not approve of the Miami Herald’s tactics, they are split, according to the polls, on whether coverage of a candidate’s private life is “fair game.” This country has a limited supply of saints interested in running for public office. As Hart said, press scrutiny “is clearly one of the reasons many talented people in the nation opt out of public service.” That is good news if it discourages people with something to hide from running for President. It is bad news if, as it now appears, some of our ablest leaders have decided that it just isn’t worth the torment.


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