The New York Times ran a piece the other day about how all the ’08 presidential candidates have been “white-washing” their personal histories, ignoring or obfuscating whole sections of their biographies. Campaigns have always told selective truths and emphasized some things above others but this batch of candidates has a surprising number of elephants in the room.
“There’s always a tension between what can be said, what should be said and what must be said,” said Edward Widmer, a historian at Brown University who worked as a speechwriter for Mr. Clinton (and also, incidentally endorsed our website). “The first candidate to calibrate this tension may move to the head of the pack.”
Even so, this tension seems to have caused a trend of illusion.
Still unspoken, for the most part: Mr. Giuliani’s delicate family situation. His campaign Web site includes nothing about his children, with whom he reportedly has strained relations. They are, in effect, airbrushed from “Rudy’s Story” (the heading of the biographical section on the Web site).
While Mr. Giuliani has embraced his New York identity, Mr. Romney has effectively run screaming from Massachusetts, a prime breeding ground for presidential also-rans — Senator John Kerry, Michael J. Dukakis, Paul Tsongas and Senator Edward M. Kennedy, among others.
Mrs. Clinton’s campaign did not respond kindly, for instance, when David Geffen, a supporter of Senator Barack Obama, Democrat of Illinois, made critical comments to the columnist Maureen Dowd of The New York Times about the former first couple, with allusions to Mr. Clinton’s “reckless” conduct. A spokesman for the former First Lady promptly called on Mr. Obama to disavow Mr. Geffen; he demurred, and the elephant that is the Clinton marital history receded, for now.
Mr. Obama has presented himself as a fresh face, unsteeped in Washington and the proverbial “politics as usual.” It is, to be sure, a cornerstone of his appeal, but also an effort to turn what many could see as a potential handicap — his inexperience — into an asset.
Just as he rarely talks about his vice presidential campaign, Mr. Edwards can be equally reticent about his time in the Senate. He has promoted himself in this campaign as a Washington outsider, an anti-war, anti-poverty crusader (Elephants crossing on Little Guy street: Mr. Edwards’ eight-figure wealth, gigantic home and $400 haircut).
There is a fine line between disclosure or discussion of dark spots in a candidate’s personal past (Hillary Clinton’s marital problems come to mind) and the devolution of the public debate to cosmetic issues (like, perhaps Edwards’ $400 haircut, literally) rather than serious discussion over who is best suitable to lead.
Coming clean about past malfeasance may satisfy the candidate’s karma if not their campaign:
Mr. Widmer, the Brown University historian, says that owning up to a perceived shortcoming can “provide a healthy exhalation” for a candidate, “if a politician’s exhalation can be said to improve air quality.”