The sound and fury of gossipy political journalism
When New York Times columnist Gail Collins heard that Mitt Romney had once strapped his dog's car carrier to the roof of a car on a family vacation, something clicked inside her head. And it kept clicking, because as she later wrote, "I've made a kind of game of trying to mention Seamus every time I write about Mitt Romney." By one count, Collins brought up Seamus in no fewer than 69 columns by the time the 2012 campaign was over. Collins obviously believed, quite past the point of mania, that this tale revealed something absolutely critical about Romney that all Americans should know before they pulled the lever for him. Exactly what that was she never really said, beyond the simple, is this the kind of person you'd want as president?
I bring this up because while no journalist may ever match Collins' weird obsession with Seamus the dog, the political news media still delight in poring over details from candidates' personal lives while offering only the most perfunctory explanations for why we're all supposed to care so much.
For instance, right now, spurred by Donald Trump (surprise, surprise), reporters are taking a good hard look at Marco Rubio's personal finances, which involve some sketchy use of a Florida Republican Party credit card (he says he paid back what he spent on personal items), his mortgages, and the fact that he cashed in a retirement plan early, which meant he incurred a hefty tax penalty. Any financial advisor would tell you that's an unwise move over the long term, but I'm pretty sure Rubio knew the consequences perfectly well. Either way, who the heck cares?
Before you answer that, consider that CNN took the time to verify whether Ben Carson was really the angry, violent kid he describes himself as, finding a bunch of people from his childhood who say that's not how they remember him.
If you find Carson an endlessly fascinating figure, more information on his early life might be of interest to you. But let me ask an unusual question: What exactly is that supposed to tell us about the kind of president he'd be?
Admittedly, Carson poses a particular problem for journalists. Because he has no political record and his ideas about policy are a mixture of standard Republican fare and nutball conspiracy theories, it's a little hard to say what we should actually examine to determine what a Carson presidency would be like. But still, shouldn't that be the main goal of the coverage?
I'll also grant that I've taken some interest in Carson's wilder statements. He just recently said that he thinks the pyramids were not actually tombs for the pharaohs, but giant grain silos built by the biblical figure Joseph. (Although he did dismiss the theory that aliens built them, so give him credit for that.) The attention to that colorful idea can at least be justified on the grounds that it's bizarre and amusing to realize that a prominent neurosurgeon and presidential candidate believes such a thing. And I suppose you could argue that Carson's penchant for magical thinking and accepting outlandish claims without any evidence could prove disastrous — like if he became convinced that a tinpot dictator halfway around the world was in possession of a terrifying arsenal of weapons of mass destruction and was about to launch an attack on the United States.
But if you're going to argue something like that, then you have to say specifically: This is why it matters. Do I care whether Marco Rubio carried a credit card balance for longer than was prudent? No, I don't. I don't need to know that he bought a boat he couldn't afford to be troubled by the thought of what he might do on matters relating to the federal budget and the broader economy. For that, I can look to his economic plan, which contains huge giveaways to the wealthy (completely eliminating taxes on inheritances, stock dividends and capital gains, among other things) and would likely explode the deficit.
That isn't to say that character doesn't matter. We want to know whether potential presidents are corrupt or honest, compassionate or cruel. We want to know how they think and approach problems, and how their perspective on the world has evolved over the course of their lifetimes. There might even be the occasional anecdote from their personal lives that would shed light on those questions.
But most of the time, we don't even try to make the connections between the "real" person behind the candidate we try so hard to uncover and the actual work a president does. We ask big, broad questions like "Can you trust him?" without getting any more specific. Trust him to do what? To follow the same policy course he and all his competitors agree on? To not steal money? If not that, then what?
We're so used to thinking that politicians' personal lives hold some kind of magic key to understanding that we don't stop asking these questions long after they've ceased to matter. Some conservatives still believe that if they can locate the moment where Saul Alinsky and William Ayers gave Jeremiah Wright the secret plan for world socialist domination to pass on to a young Barack Obama, it'll blow the lid off his whole presidency. But if Obama had a secret plan, you'd think after seven years we'd have seen it.
When these kinds of stories come up, we ought to be able to treat them with the seriousness they deserve, and no more. Unless there's some criminality at work, it should be acceptable to say that something like Rubio's finances are kind of interesting and maybe worth a story or two, but not much more than that. Then we'd have more time to think about what kind of president he and his competitors might actually be.