During the long election season just past, Gail Sheehy wrote for Vanity Fair a series of “character profiles” of various presidential candidates. Six of those profiles, together with an introductory essay and a long piece on Ronald Reagan, make up Character: America’s Search for Leadership, Ms. Sheehy’s latest book. In addition to Reagan, her subjects include Gary Hart, Jesse Jackson, Robert Dole, George Bush, Albert Gore Jr., and Michael Dukakis.

Neither a historian nor a psychologist, Gail Sheehy is instead a sort of psychological free-lancer, a self-styled specialist in the components of political leadership and personal character. She has a lot to say on these subjects, and makes several interrelated points about modern American politics. In a nutshell, they are: because (1) the presidency is an important office and (2) character reaps destiny, we as voters must (3) avoid reaping the destiny of a would-be President with flawed character, which is difficult to do because (4) candidates aren’t always what they seem and voters are easily manipulated, therefore (5) Gail Sheehy will give us a hand because (6) she knows a lot more about character, politics, and us than we do.

Let’s start with character. Ms. Sheehy defines character as “the enduring marks left by life that set one apart as an individual.” These marks are determined by heredity and environment and become evident in how “people engage the great psychological issues of adulthood—or deny, defy, or elude them.” What this means in terms of Ms. Sheehy’s work is that when she approaches her subjects with her psychological microscope, everything is going to get a look-see.

Gail Sheehy gives three reasons why it is “not useful, but essential” that we examine the character of would-be Presidents. First, the world is a dangerous and complicated place and we must “protect ourselves from electing a person whose character flaws, once subjected to the pressures of leading a superpower through the nuclear age, can weaken or endanger the course of our future.” I can’t argue with that. On the other hand, I don’t know a single person who ever voted for a candidate in the expectation that that candidate would “endanger the course of our future.” But then, that’s Ms. Sheehy’s whole point—voters don’t know what they’re doing. Worse, they don’t know that they don’t know what they’re doing.

In Ms. Sheehy’s opinion, “[w]e have suffered repeated disillusionments with recent presidents because we failed to enter into the compact aware of even their most obvious patterns of behavior.” Our political disillusionment, then, is the result of our behavioral ignorance. Ms. Sheehy’s logic on this point is as follows: after seeing what Presidents do and don’t do in office, we know what they are like; therefore, if we could see what potential Presidents are like, we would know what, once in office, they would and would not do. If, for instance, we had known what to look for and where to look, we could have interpreted correctly the clues of Ronald Reagan’s childhood and spared ourselves disillusionment with a President who turned out to be “dithering,” “passive,” “fiscally incompetent,” and without “human connections in any meaningful sense”; a President who displayed “self-delusion,” “monumental insensitivity,” and “almost pathetic failings”; a President under whose leadership “America’s long-term economic health and international position of respect [were] weakened in critical ways.”

The second reason to examine a candidate’s character is that “we need the cold slap of insight to wake us up from the smoothly contrived images projected by highly paid professional media experts who market the candidates like perfumed soap.” The slapper in this case is obviously Ms. Sheehy—the rest of us are slappees—because she thinks the American electorate (and often the media) have been gulled by the image-making efforts of nearly every victorious presidential candidate since 1964.

Ms. Sheehy’s third reason for examining the character, of aspiring leaders is that it is good for us—personally good for us. Ms. Sheehy sees her character portraits as “case histories that instruct us in how, and how not, to conduct ourselves to win at life.” Her subjects, as she presents them, teach us “the price for avoiding or denying confrontation with life’s major passages”; they are a “mirror.” But precisely what kind of mirror? Is Ms. Sheehy saying that we may find educational the life stories of American leaders? No, it’s more than that. I think her suggestion is that the next time we’re facing a personal crisis and feeling like losers at life, we might try asking ourselves how Al Gore would handle the problem.

In constructing her character profiles, Gail Sheehy employs a method to support a thesis. The method and the thesis happen to be one and the same: everything counts. Believing that “[a]ny odd bit of behavior . . . might be a clue to a larger truth,” Ms. Sheehy bases her character analyses “on evidence—evidence I go out and dig up.” What she digs up is a whole mess of people—past and present colleagues, ex-girlfriends, former neighbors, high-school coaches—whose observations all are given equal weight, whose possible motives for what they say or don’t say go unexamined, whose clarity of memory is left unquestioned. Ms. Sheehy presents as character “evidence” people whose character (and in some cases whose very names) we do not know.

Only after talking to “thirty, forty, or fifty” sources, then conducting “at least two long interviews” with the candidate and traveling “extensively” in his company, does Gail Sheehy make her final character judgments. And how long does this process take? How long, for example, did it take her in 1984 to “find out who Gary Hart really was”? Well, the task of finding out what “made Gary Hart tick” took Gail Sheehy all of “a month”—quite a feat considering that “one political associate of Hart’s after another” had said to Ms. Sheehy, “When you find out who Gary Hart is, let me know.”

She let everyone know. But when some unity of public opinion did form about Hart’s character, it was not because Gail Sheehy, in 1984, revealed what “made Gary Hart tick.” It was because The Miami Herald, in 1987, reported what Gary Hart had done. The lesson here might be that to citizens, a candidate’s actions speak louder than his ticking.

That is not Ms. Sheehy’s message. In any case, her mission is to give lessons to, not take lessons from, the citizenry. Lesson number one: a person’s psychological tick-tick, easily audible if you know how to listen, can be counted as a future action. And what does this have to do with the price of eggs? Well, now we’re into lesson number two: elections aren’t about the price of eggs. For Gail Sheehy, an election ideally is a shared national therapy session, in which candidates “are made to reveal” (the italics are mine) their true inner selves, while voters study this forced psychological disrobing and learn not only how to pick a foolproof President but how to “win at life.”

Like many people who write about politics, Ms. Sheehy simplifies the complicated questions and complicates the simple ones. An election is a decision, period. And even if all of the parties on both sides of the decision arrive at the crucial moment by complex psychological routes, the decisionmaking itself proceeds in a fairly straightforward manner. You’re the candidate, I’m the voter. I’m determining if I want you to be more than a candidate. I base my determination on what I believe, what you say (and sometimes what you’ve done), whether I agree with what you say, and whether I believe you believe what you say.

After the matter of values and the question of “issues” (which Ms. Sheehy dismisses as “too complex” to trust a candidate’s positions on), voting can come down to raw instinct (I just don’t trust that guy), pure emotion (I just don’t like that guy), and, sometimes, plain human idiosyncrasy. I know a woman who refused to vote for George Bush because “his eyes are too close together.” I overheard a woman in the grocery store say she wouldn’t vote for Michael Dukakis because “his head is too big for his body.” Reaction to a candidate’s physical characteristics is not an intelligent basis on which to select a President. But in the end, it seems no riskier an approach than reaction to the recollections of a candidate’s old girlfriend.

And after the election, then what? Some Presidents will be better at their job than others, and some citizens will be dissatisfied no matter who’s in office or what he does. But by Gail Sheehy’s reasoning, the fact that elected leaders can turn out to be flawed is proof that the electorate’s criteria for leadership are flawed. By her reasoning, better leadership standards would ultimately result in less voter disenchantment. And how do we arrive at better standards? We can start by listening to Gail Sheehy. First, we must understand that enough “mental and moral distinguishing marks are evident by the time individuals seek or rise to high office to predict whether a leader might be weak or strong, sincere or tricky, good or bad.” Then, we must use that understanding “to discern and weigh the innermost natures of our would-be leaders before they . . . take control of our fates.”

Behind Ms. Sheehy’s remedy for the prevention of bad Presidents and disillusioned citizens—behind her entire book—are two assumptions. One, she assumes it is actually possible to “discern and weigh the innermost natures” of people with whom we (voters) have never had, will never have, real human contact—people we don’t know. Discerning and weighing a human being’s innermost nature is, as Gail Sheehy is, the first to acknowledge, a tall order. Ms. Sheehy’s efforts on the Gary Hart case notwithstanding, I think the project takes more than a month.

Ms. Sheehy’s second assumption is that once all of a would-be leader’s “mental and moral distinguishing marks” are made evident (presumably by Ms. Sheehy), something close to a public consensus will follow on the meaning of those “marks.” But Ms. Sheehy herself, in yet another of her points about the pervasiveness of political image-making, cites a “massive” 1987 Los Angeles Times study that found that “Americans are divided into nine different value orientations.” Does she have any idea what she revealed with that single illustration? Does she know what the fact of nine (or five, or eight, or twelve) different value orientations means? It means it isn’t easy to reach collective agreement about a candidate’s identity, much less the interpretation of a candidate’s “mental and moral distinguishing marks.” It also means that in Character, Gail Sheehy is talking to herself and the approximately two hundred other people across America who consider it “not only useful but essential” to know what went through Michael Dukakis’s mind when he “first realized [he] wouldn’t grow up to be a giant.” (And while we’re at it, will someone explain to me why serious, successful men, while seeking the most responsible office in the country, think they are obliged to trace for public consumption their feelings about their height? Before long, reporters will be asking stuff like, “What do you have to say to those Americans who think your head is too big for your body?”)

Using rambling sentences, imprecise quasi-scientific language, and an earnest I’m-sorry-to-have-to-say-this voice, Gail Sheehy draws often negative and always confident conclusions about her subjects. Her business isn’t impressions, it’s judgments. She presumes to know large things about important people. If the nature of her business and the scale of her presumption give her pause, she doesn’t show it. It is breathtaking to realize, for instance, that the gist of her character judgment of Ronald Reagan—made ever so regretfully but without batting an eye—is that the only eight-year President in recent history was all but loony.

Only once, briefly and unconvincingly, does Gail Sheehy acknowledge that others might disagree with her findings: “Some readers will make their own connections between the many details offered in these portraits, and come out with a very different assessment of a candidate’s character.” But that assumes readers will take seriously enough her self-blended combination of political reporting and psychological dirt-digging to actually appraise her conclusions. Some won’t get that far. Somewhere out among those “nine different value orientations” is at least one group whose first reaction after reading Ms. Sheehy’s character assessments will be: says who? If Gail Sheehy really wants more discerning, less impressionable citizens, she will, in that group, have found them.


[Character: America’s Search for Leadership, by Gail Sheehy (New York: William Morrow and Company) 303 pp., $17.95]