DID THEY or didn't they? Is he or isn't he?
So-called "character issues" are fast becoming the only topic of political discussion, even as the American people grow more cynical and seem to have less and less idea of what constitutes an ideal personal or national character.
One might conclude that precisely because we no longer know what makes "e pluribus" into "unum," we keep trying to inject a shared moral direction into our politics by applying outdated standards to public figures.
There was a time, or so the legend goes, when we had a consensus on the nature of "American values," a prominent part of which was old-fashioned sexual mores. Also important was the idea of military service as an unambiguously moral enterprise, a patriotic duty and a preparation for leadership roles.
For better or worse, nowadays we know that life is more complex. Tensions and flaws in someone's sex life have many causes other than lack of respect for promises or contempt for women. Such tensions and flaws are not so easily made to yield clear evidence of the man's dishonorable intent.
Avoidance of military service is sometimes the most responsible way to respond to a war one believes to be unjust: remember, combat involves not only being brave enough to die for one's country but also being ruthless enough to kill for it.
So why is it that 10 years from now, all we'll remember about Gary Hart, Clarence Thomas and Bill Clinton is their alleged sexual improprieties and draft dodging?
IT SEEMS that every time a political figure begins to generate discussion about the issues he stands for, a "character issue" intervenes and immediately crowds out all the others.
Not that character is a trivial concern. Rather, the question is whether, given the sound-bite nature of modern politics, the American people are capable of assessing that complex and contradictory thing known as a person's character, and whether the criteria they use are valid.
Public figures today are little more than icons. Their personality, distinguishing traits and platform must be easily encapsulated into an image as Uncle Sam or the Democratic donkey.
"Hi, I'm Joe Smith and I'm for health care and against Japan, and I use #2 Brown Hair Dye." Whoops, your 30 seconds are up, Mr. Smith. On to the next candidate.
Despite this handy simplification, the voters still have a problem: they don't know which candidate to vote for, because they're all alike. So another label comes to be affixed to some candidates in order to eliminate them. Did he ever cheat? He must be a Cheater. Someone heard him tell a lie? By gosh, the man's a Liar. Better not vote for him.
Clarence Thomas himself was much in need of simplification. Liberals didn't know whether to support him because his was an African-American success story or denounce him because he had the "wrong" position of affirmative action and abortion.
Conservatives who agreed with his prenomination positions were dismayed when he systematically avoided committing himself to any opinions during the hearings. Then the Anita Hill issue intervened and gave everyone a quick litmus test they could use to determine his fitness to serve on the Court.
Unlike Oliver Stone, I'm not going to posit the existence of a conspiracy to derail the American democratic process. Rather, the two phenomena feed each other in a self-perpetuating cycle: people's unwillingness to make complex intellectual discussion part of politics leaves only superficial "character analyses" (i.e. rumors) to be debated, which then lowers the standard of the political process further and makes it harder for a public figure's ideas to be his most important characteristic.