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Europeans, says the New York Times, are “amused” at the “exacting moral yardsticks” applied to Americans seeking high public office (Markham, 1987). The American people, a Times-Mirror poll reports, are not amused but irritated—at what they regard as media overkill on candidate character (Rosenstiel, 1987). Influential Washington Post columnist David Broder deplores the tendency of political reporters to “swoop down” on presidential candidates with embarrassing questions about “the sin of the week,” and calls for guidelines to help reporters stay on course (Broder, 1987). Another Times-Mirror poll finds that only 14 percent of Americans give top priority to candidate character. Instead, a whopping 49 percent felt a candidate's “ability to accomplish things” was most important, while 33 percent gave the highest priority to “stand on issues” (Skelton, 1987).
These reactions, though skewed by media treatment of 1988 presidential candidates like Hart, Biden, and Robertson, nonetheless raise important questions about how Americans take the measure of would-be leaders. How reasonable, for example, are the priorities assigned by the Times-Mirror poll respondents to the various qualifications for office? Which among the evaluated categories (character, competence and issue position) affords the surest forecast of eventual presidential performance? Whatever its evaluative priority, what dimensions of character are relevant to the presidency and measurable in candidates? How can presidential competence be defined, and the extent of its presence in candidates assessed? When is the most appropriate time during the campaign to examine character, competence and issue position? Below are some answers offered as food for thought.
In conversation with a German Daron in 1807, Thomas Jefferson remarked that, “when a man assumes a public trust, he should consider himself a public property.”
Recalling Jefferson as the intellectual father of American democracy, we may read this comment as an approving aphorism—a tenet of political philosophy. But Jefferson was, at the time, also an embattled president. He had suffered personal attacks as scurrilous as any in his day or ours.
So the remark may have been less an affirmation of democratic ideal than a recognition of political reality. Its tone implies resignation. Whether or not a public figure had a right to privacy and individuality, Jefferson seemed to regard at least some loss of both as inevitable.
In a free society with a free press, the demands of public life inevitably exceed the functional obligations of office. It is not enough for elected officials to make a straightforward accounting of the public business—the inarguably proper province of the public's right to know. The politics of a democracy also demand contact on a personal level. The public has a right to know what sort of people are running its affairs.
The general topic of this symposium—the interplay between public careers and private lives in the selection of presidential candidates—is important. Many debates around dinner tables undoubtedly followed the disclosure by the Miami Herald of Gary Hart's time spent with Donna Rice. In the United States especially, as Tocqueville pointed out 150 years ago, we tend to believe that the law speaks with insight, even if not necessarily with finality, on issues of public importance. This explains, I suspect, my presence in this forum. The embarrassing reality, though, is that the law of privacy is at best tangential to the concerns behind the symposium.
I might best fulfill my task—to comment on the legal regulation of disclosures of private facts regarding public figures—in a sentence: The very fact that public figures are by definition “newsworthy” means that in fact they forego any legal protection against the publication of true facts about them, however embarrassing or offensive such publication might be. There is simply no case law supporting the claim of a public figure seeking political office to enjoy a “right of privacy.” The courts rightly have held that the recognition of any such right would disserve the democratic process itself, for it would inevitably deprive the public of truthful information relevant to deciding who should exercise public responsibilities.
We expect to find calculating, even Machiavellian, politicians in Cook County, Illinois or Placquemines Parish, Louisiana. It comes as something of a surprise to find them in Johnson County, Iowa, but with the quadrennial recurrence of the Iowa caucuses lowans become subtle calculators of their own advantage. Around caucus time, Iowa is a land of political strategists.
In the following pages, I summarize my notes from several days spent observing the strategies of politicians, the media, and citizens in Iowa in 1988.
This past January, I conducted a class on “Presidential Elections: The New Hampshire Primary” with 13 students from Middlebury College. We spent one week in Middlebury, primarily watching presidential debates held this summer and fall. On January 11, we headed to New Hampshire. I have ten strong impressions of the New Hampshire presidential primary:
Penetration: The political process in New Hampshire is open and accessible. Each student had at least one “brush with greatness.” A Dole volunteer was the lead driver in Dole's motorcade before and after the January 15 Dartmouth debate, and was in Dole's holding room before and after the debate. A Bush volunteer drove George Bush's truck, went to Bush's estate in Maine, and was within 10 feet of Air Force Two her first night on the job. A Kemp volunteer met Kemp and Hart her first night in New Hampshire.
Approval voting (AV) is a voting system in which voters can vote for as many candidates as they wish in a multicandidate election—one with more than two candidates (Brams and Fishburn, 1983). Like plurality voting (PV), in which voters are restricted to casting just one vote, the candidate (or candidates) with the most votes wins, with each candidate approved of receiving one full vote.
The salient difference between AV and PV in multicandidate elections is that voters, by indicating that they approve of more than one candidate under AV, can help more than one to get elected. This feature of AV tends to prevent a relatively extreme candidate, who may be the favorite of a plurality of the electorate but is anathema to the majority, from winning. Whereas under PV an extremist can win if two or more moderate candidates split the centrist vote, under AV centrist voters can prevent the extremist's election by voting for more than one moderate. Insofar as the moderate candidates share the votes of their centrist supporters, then one will be elected—and the proverbial will of the majority will be expressed.