[Another] big mistake I think the press makes: They call anything that isn’t a strict policy issue “character,” when often it’s personality. There’s a big difference. Character has to do with things like honesty and integrity and honor. I don’t think anybody can, for instance, begin to look at both [candidates’] records and say Bush’s character, or let’s say his service during the Vietnam war, or his sobriety, his business record, his way of sort of being really quite indifferent about all sorts of things, that these are character issues where he comes off looking great. He has a winning personality, apparently, with a lot of people. Kerry, on the other hand, his character may be conflicted in places but his problem is a personality problem.

Character is a very strong word. It suggests a kind of fundamental quality of the soul, of the sensibility, it’s almost like the stuff somebody’s made of. If you say this guy has a character problem, it doesn’t mean he’s hard to like. I’ve interviewed war criminals and mass murders, and they’re often exceedingly charming … So charm and character or personality and character are separate things, and I think the press probably conflates them in a way that is not useful or is misleading…

LCB: How do you approach a lengthy campaign-related piece, such as your John Kerry profile? What do you look for?

PG: In the Kerry profile, I really wanted to look at him as a foreign policy candidate. That was the rubric I thought of. I thought, well, [foreign policy] is a really central issue in this campaign and it hasn’t been before … My question was, well, everyone talked about electability, suddenly the consensus was Kerry had the highest electability. Generally, that meant that the feeling was of all the candidates, Kerry was best qualified by experience and disposition and so on to be commander-in-chief. So I thought, well, how does he really think about those things? Because even as things went to hell in Iraq in the spring, there was this kind of conventional wisdom in the press that for Bush national security, and specifically the war in Iraq … were unassailable strengths. So I was interested in seeing specifically how does Kerry think about these things, how does he go beyond a criticism of Bush to defining his own position?

One of the things a New Yorker piece allows one is a kind of greater length and depth in exploring some figure in a profile … It’s an attempt to bring certain things together, juxtapositions, bring out contrasts, ask certain kinds of questions of people around them that allow those things to come into focus for reader. …

I went for foreign policy because I think it’s what makes this particular election singular. This is not something Americans — voters or candidates — are accustomed to being steeped in, in a presidential campaign. If you look at past campaigns, [foreign policy] is something people speak about really quite generally, vaguely. It’s kind of an issue for the experts, it’s not the defining and central issue that it has come to be in this campaign.

LCB: How does reporting on the presidential campaigns compare to reporting on, say, genocide in Rwanda in the mid-90s? And which is the press worse at covering?

PG: I like to go places abroad most of the time that are big important stories that I feel for some reason are not getting the attention they deserve. I never went to Iraq, I never went to Bosnia, I didn’t go to Afghanistan. These seemed to be things that were not lacking for American press attention. Whereas when I went to Rwanda I was really the only full-time journalist there from a non-wire service for months at a time. That’s a whole country whose problems shift over the borders into neighboring countries. There was a sense of really having it to oneself, having a different opportunity and burden. Here, you’ve got a bazillion reporters, the press is part of the story, it’s performed for press — the whole campaign — and you are just one of many, many, many reporters. On the other hand, it is a tremendously important story this year…

Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.