Picks and Pans Review: Character: America's Search for Leadership

updated 09/26/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/26/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Gail Sheehy

Liberal arts majors take heart—there is life after term papers. Take the career of psychojournalist Gail Sheehy, who has often seemed stuck in term-paper mode in her writing about midlife crises (Passages), just plain crises (Pathfinders) and now the electoral crises of 1988. "What is character, anyway?" she demands, before informing us that "the root of the word is the Greek word for engraving." Ah-ha! It looks as if she's going to suggest that we elect somebody with a good set of etchings, and she does include Gary Hart in her sketches of the year's top presidential contenders. Mostly, however, she's devoted to pigeonholing him, Jackson, Dole, Bush, Gore and Dukakis. There are such tidy little categories as "Forced Change" (Bob Dole getting half his body torn up) and facile explanations for people's conduct—Hart's mom was uptight! He wanted to boogie! Far from offering any insights into the system, Sheehy too often succeeds mainly in trivializing politicians while obscuring her own often devastatingly revealing reporting. Toss away the psychobabble and take a look at Sheehy's picture-precise images: Hart, sitting poolside with Warren Beatty, surrounded by topless starlets; Dole's useless right arm making the buttoning of his shirt a painstaking project; illegitimate son Jesse Jackson peering at his father's grand house from across the street. The picture of Al Gore, however, seems more than a little retouched—and suspiciously flattering; Sheehy even goes out of her way to justify the record-censoring antics of Gore's wife, Tipper. And face-to-face with George Bush, the author, seemingly without irony, asks, "Can the man help it if he was shaped until the age of 18 to conform to the Eastern WASP Patrician Sensibility?" The chapter devoted to Michael Dukakis, on the other hand, is dull enough to set his candidacy back to 1985 or so. Sheehy's final section is devoted to Ronald Reagan. He is the only subject in the book Sheehy has not interviewed for a Vanity Fair profile. But she uses interviews with presidential advisers, among other sources, to create an image of a President fuzzy with age and reading from cue cards, babbling tales of distant Hollywood, so indifferent to the significance of his office that he can turn to his former political director, Ed Rollins, and declare, "I don't give a s—about history. I'll be dead, and they'll distort it anyway." While the Reagan chapter, subtitled "Refusal to Change," is often fascinating, Sheehy makes no attempt to relate his career, or any of the others she writes about, to larger notions of how our political system functions. As term papers go, this one deserves at best an "Incomplete." (Morrow, $17.95)

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