It happened, in the summer of 1987, that I had all the Democrats who were running for president in 1988 in an auditorium in Houston, speaking for the first time as formal candidates. All the Republicans had agreed to appear a few weeks later in identical circumstances.
I had sitting at my side Robert Strauss, the illustrious Texas Democrat, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, future U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, and trusted by all sides to deal evenly in any questions we got into with individual candidates.
It is a very unusual luxury to be able to put the same question to the whole battery of contestants, but the question I most wanted to shoot out at the company was not liked at all by Robert Strauss. "You can't get up there in front of 10 million people," he warned, "and give out a reason why your fellow contestant should not be nominated."
I disagreed, and the show went on, one part of it featuring this question: Sir, the gentleman seated on your left, Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, wants to be the standard-bearer for your party. What is it, given his background, given his record, given his weaknesses, that your party would have to fear if he were the candidate?
Sometimes the Achilles' heel is obvious. "Mr. Clinton would have a problem accounting for all the time he spent with Monica Lewinsky and then lying about it." "General Napoleon would have a problem, given the difficulties in hand and the ferocity of the opposition, defending his decision to invade Russia."
But Strauss was right. The half-dozen candidates were all disposed to talk about their own accomplishments (and their dreams of great ventures only they could launch), but something fed by gentility, brotherhood or fear kept the candidates from enumerating the weaknesses of the others. They just wouldn't do it.
As we face the critical early caucus in Iowa this time around, we suffer from this same self-indulgence.
It is pretty well established that former senator John Edwards is simply a rich station-seeker. "Senator, you've been running for president for over four years. How do you account for your failure to formulate a coherent platform for your candidacy?"
That's a question the moderator could ask, but would run the risk of being thought prosecutorial -- the equivalent of asking Clinton why he had carried on with Monica, or Napoleon why he had persisted in his effort to conquer Moscow.
Worse, an instinct for self-protection would almost certainly awaken in the other candidates a sense of caution, and therefore of sympathy for the candidate who didn't answer the question -- gradually chastening the moderator, who would get back to the kinds of general questions that leave the voting public with no opportunity to reflect on the weaknesses of the various candidates, let alone with any sense of who, on Jan. 3, is going to prevail in Iowa.
The election contest we are let in for has a great deal to do with how much money the candidates have succeeded in attracting from donors, fleeting impressions of how skillful they are in circumlocution, plus a certain fuzz of likability, or lack of it. This is not unimportant. If we are going to see the face of this man, or woman, 18 times a day for the next four years, why not choose someone with an agreeable countenance? And we are rewarded in having a glimpse of his capacity to deal with other politicians.
But Robert Strauss was right. You will never force a politician to recite the weaknesses of another. And this even though we know from history -- as witness, most recently, Arthur Schlesinger's posthumously published journals -- that this is often what most needed to be said.