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Column: What I would ask them

Column: What I would ask them


One of the disadvantages of a front-porch and media-availability presidential campaign is that the two major candidates don't get out into the country.

It's a campaign without campaigning.

The so-called swing states are also, mostly, "flyover" states. Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania don't get a lot of attention in nonpresidential years. This year they are getting media buys and staged appearances. But the two candidates are not actually "out there," on the hustings and in the country, as they were earlier in the year in Iowa and New Hampshire, for example.

This is the way it has to be. But, consequently, they don't have much contact with the people, or with an unfiltered and less-aligned local press. And we don't learn much new about Biden or Trump.

So I have been thinking about what I would ask these two men, both of whom I have met but will probably not get to meet this year, if I could.

I have been thinking about what our editorial writers would ask — what editorial writers at any newspaper might ask.

Many might ask Trump about his past tax liabilities and payments. A sharp tack might ask Biden about his family's business dealings.

But somehow I don't think the gotcha questions, posed once more, would reveal much.

Then there are questions that matter profoundly but that haven't gotten much oxygen this year: How, exactly, would Biden advance us on environmental policy, especially if the Senate remains Republican? Or, on a totally different track: Does he now believe there should be any limit to abortion rights, such as a ban on partial birth abortion?

It would be worth asking Trump: Now that you have brought the loss of American manufacturing and the destruction of small-town America to the forefront of our politics, what is your actual plan for bringing manufacturing jobs and small-town America back?

I don't think debates are the format for this, but I would love to ask each man, somehow, about his own values and intellectual and moral development.

I would start by asking Trump and Biden three questions:

First, who are your heroes?

I would ask this as three subsets — personal heroes, political heroes and presidential role models.

Trump is on record as admiring Andrew Jackson. If this is so, I would like to hear why, from him. He also, I believe, admired his father and his recently deceased brother. Wouldn't it be interesting to hear him talk about that?

The past president that a current or would-be president looks to as a model tells you much about that person. Ronald Reagan admired FDR's skills as a great communicator and sought to emulate that skill and style. In terms of values, Reagan liked Calvin Coolidge. Silent Cal didn't think he, or the federal government, possessed "answers."

Mike Pence's hero is Reagan. Who is Kamala Harris'?

If Trump's role model is Jackson, who is Biden's? Harry Truman is an obvious choice. But in a way Biden is presenting himself as Dwight Eisenhower — a bipartisan unifier who will offer us a period of domestic peace and rest from ideological battle and national angst.

Second, I would ask both candidates about books — books that they have recently read, books that they treasured in childhood, books that help form the way each man looks at politics, government and life.

Presidents have to be able to absorb a lot of information fast. But they also need a frame for organizing information. Presidents who are or have been readers are constantly retooling their mental mainframe.

All leaders and complex personalities process information through a personal system of some kind — refining and organizing information not only through personality and character but according to acquired values.

Truman was a reader. So was John F. Kennedy. So was Barack Obama. It's not the only useful qualification for president, certainly. But I wish George W. Bush had read more books, just as I wish Obama had been a governor before he became president.

Finally I would ask Trump to tell me one thing the pundits get totally wrong about him. Then I would ask Biden the same question. Jerry Ford could have said: Well, I am not a klutz. Ronald Reagan could have said: I am not an air-headed actor, I have thought through all of my beliefs. Jimmy Carter: I actually was up to the presidency by the end of my term and was quite capable of seeing the big picture. Think of my emphasis on human rights.

In many years in this racket, one thing I am convinced I have learned about the way the press covers and the public perceives national leaders is that we usually test for the wrong qualities: We test for "charisma" and fundraising ability but not competence or comfort with one's own psyche. We almost always get our leaders wrong in some fairly striking way. The best biographies of Coolidge, Truman, Ike, LBJ and Ford show that.

We are probably getting Trump and Biden wrong, too.

Keith C. Burris is editor, vice president and editorial director of Block Newspapers (


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