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Portraits of six men who would be president - and one who is

Character: America's Search for Leadership, by Gail Sheehy. New York: Morrow. 303 pp. $17.95. Surveys show that voters care more about a candidate's character than his politics. But what, in fact, is character, and how, in this age of image consultants, do we get to see it as it really is?

Character is a reassuringly old-fashioned-sounding word implying ethical judgments. From classical times to the neoclassical 18th century, character studies were portraits of moral fiber - or its lack. But with Rousseau's ``Confessions'' (1767), the ethical notion of character was subverted by the emergence of a more elaborate psychological model that explored the shadowy areas between deed and desire. In our century, psychology has become the dominant mode of explaining character. Critics may question the true value of psychology, but psychologizing has become so ``natural'' to most of us that few readers will be surprised that a book like Gail Sheehy's ``Character'' is - like her previous best sellers, ``Passages'' (1976) and ``Pathfinders'' (1981) - an exercise in pop psychology.

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Fortunately, it is more than that. At a time when not only television, but also much of the print media, have focused on sensational campaign ``moments'' - George Bush's run-in with Dan Rather, Jesse Jackson's reaction to Michael Dukakis's choice of Lloyd Bentsen - at the expense of the profound issues, Sheehy's portraits of seven presidential hopefuls, past and present, provide some of the missing background and depth. While it would be an overstatement to claim that her sharp, vivid, sometimes glib character sketches help us see their subjects steadily and whole, they do offer a more complete sense of what these men are like than can be gleaned from other sources.

``Character'' is based on articles Sheehy wrote for Vanity Fair. Beginning with her devastating piece on Gary Hart, ``The Road to Bimini,'' and concluding with a blistering, less than fair, but still valuable look at Ronald Reagan, ``Who Was That Masked Man?,'' it also contains chapters on Jackson, Bob Dole, Bush, Albert Gore Jr., and Dukakis.

Sheehy ties all seven portraits together by analyzing each man's ability to make constructive adjustments to a changing reality. Dukakis, she believes, made a genuine change in the face of his 1978 loss of the Massachusetts governorship. Hart and Jackson appear as practitioners of ``false change,'' constantly reinventing their own histories, but never quite coming to terms with their pasts. Gore is presented - with perhaps too little skepticism on Sheehy's part - as an ``accelerated'' changer, working extra hard to prove he is not just coasting on the coattails of his famous father. Dole and Bush form a neatly contrasting pair: Dole, an ``inner directed'' man who learned self-reliance in the wake of a life-altering accident; Bush, an ``outer directed'' man who has tended to make himself over to please authority figures.

While Sheehy is prepared to take off the gloves in portraying the two men whose presidential ambitions are in the past - Hart and Reagan, she tries to keep an open mind about the five who may still have more of a future. She investigates, she probes, but she also tries to remain as objective as she can.

The fascinating material that Sheehy the reporter uncovers has a far more powerful impact than her efforts as a political analyst and a political ``psychologist'' to shape and interpret it. Even her attempt to bend over backward to be fair - even sympathetic - to Jesse Jackson does not vitiate the chilling portrait she delivers of a relentless manipulator.

Although Sheehy is a flashy journalist who knows just how to capture and hold the reader's attention, she also demonstrates in this book a serious concern for the quality of America's leadership. Attuned as she is to the image-riddled media world, she is all the more sensitive to the crucial distinction between image and character. And so, oddly enough, it is in her book that one finds something all too rare in this year's campaign coverage: a genuine solicitude for the fate of the republic.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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