Character of candidates always viewed differently

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, left, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., center and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg speak during a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN/New York Times at Otterbein University Tuesday in Westerville, Ohio.

Editor’s Note: “Their Way” is a regular Sunday column that captures the personal style of the many public officials and other personalities and events covered by former Mesabi Daily News Executive Editor Bill Hanna during his more than 40 years of newspaper reporting, writing and editing.


The character issue, of varying importance, spends time in a presidential campaign every four years. The 2020 election will certainly be no different.

But if it’s a matchup between Trump and Biden or Trump and Warren or Trump and Sanders — and right now one of the three seems most likely — the character issue, quite likely, won’t matter much.

Let’s face it, the president’s tweets and his personal past are not all that pleasant; Bernie Sanders is an avowed Socialist who rails against millionaires and billionaires but is a millionaire himself; Warren has misled the public badly about her ancestry and job history; and Biden has an ethics dark cloud now hovering above and following him on the campaign trail.

And most people have already made up their minds on whether their votes will be cast for one of the four quite flawed candidates.

The expected $1 billion or so to be spent on campaign ads between now and Nov. 3, 2020, won’t really matter that much, if at all, regarding the character issue.

That character issue, which has quickly evolved in recent years, used to be a big deal — but mostly long after an election.

What was known privately by good friends; even some political enemies; and reporters who either couldn’t pin the story down or had stories blocked and censored by someone above their pay grade or else were themselves sympathetic to the candidate, would come out later in books.

“October Surprises” continue in vogue. That’s where potential “dirt” is gathered and readied to be thrown a few weeks before Election Day, limiting time for effective responses.

A good example is the 2000 campaign when Democrats used reporters and news outlets as their surrogates to reveal a past DWI arrest of Republican candidate George W. Bush.

Bush survived and went on to serve two four-year terms.

Then, definitely unknowingly, Bill Clinton would change the character issue forever.

The country has seen a lot on the character of past presidents. But prior to Bill Clinton, the debate was seldom as titillating and in real time. The president and an intern engaged in a sexual act in the Oval Office — it was not a made-for-television movie, but rather an event that just recently had happened.

And now, social media has taken all of us on an often surreal trip where lies are wrongly and knowingly spread as facts; where truth is not allowed to get in the way of a good story; and where any sense of personal privacy is oh so yesterday.

No rules have sadly become the new rules of campaign coverage. Rumors used to be passed on in society with a whisper; now they are yelled out from a social media bullhorn for all to hear on Facebook.

One of the results is a devaluation of the character issue in presidential campaigns.

But then again, a campaign of two very good and honorable candidates on the character issue is really no guarantee of better government.

Following the impeachment proceedings and then resignation of Republican President Richard Nixon in August 1974, Gerald Ford was sworn in as an accidental president who would seek the office on his own in 1976.

Georgia peanut farmer (“Just call me Jimmy”) Carter was his Democratic opponent.

What followed was a clean campaign known for, well, not much; and then a four-year Carter presidency that has pretty much been labeled a failure wrapped in a recession.

The character of candidates will always be viewed differently by different voters. But how that issue is presented has changed dramatically. Now that issue is being presented daily and not just during the heat of a campaign.

So good luck trying to filter truth out of so much fiction floating about day after day after day.

And good luck trying to find the perfect in an imperfect human and his or her campaign.


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