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Rennie: The scrutiny season: The 2016 primary has begun

Kevin Rennie

The telescope becomes a microscope as the 2016 presidential scrutiny primary campaign has begun. The Washington Post wonders why Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, joining the ranks of millions of Americans, did not complete his college education. Its sleuthing unearthed nothing new, but it confirms the Republican’s arrival in the front rank of national politics.

As a senior at Marquette, Walker, who had been active in campus politics, left school in 1990 after snagging a job offer from the American Red Cross. The Post reports that others — Walker detractors, for the most part — believe there must be more to the explanation than a job and scant enthusiasm for academic pursuits.

Candidates who start advancing to the front rank of competitors for the presidency face the indignity of public dissection of their busy lives. The image of perfection candidates and supporters strive to paint for the public becomes a festival of revealing flaws. It can be a test that makes a better candidate or a deadly ordeal that signals the end of his or her chance at the big prize.

Campaigns will express disdain for this public vetting but they engage it in the private round by examining themselves and their opponents. Explanations are prepared for the dreaded moment when some escapade comes to light. Plans are made to push unflattering tales of opponents into public view at critical moments.

The late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, was suspended from Harvard for hiring a fellow student to take a Spanish test for him. It was not fatal to his political ambitions. Walker dropping out of college provides no grist for the campaigns alarmed at the steely governor’s fast rise in the crowded Republican competition for president.

A long Boston Globe report last month on Jeb Bush’s use of illegal drugs while a student at a tony prep school enjoyed only a short life in the news. Bush, the former governor of Florida, has been involved in family campaigns for president since the late 1970s. He knows how to deflect. He pointed out that the Globe story told of events more than 40 years ago. Those prep school boys, however, do know how to nurse a slight. There’ll be no shortage of them to disparage Bush as the campaign proceeds.

The Bushes, however, know how to wield a shiv. This month marks the 15th anniversary of George W. Bush’s dismemberment of a surging John McCain in their decisive contest in the South Carolina Republican primary. McCain wrote of racist attacks on his family and other campaign assaults, “There wasn’t a damn thing I could do about the subterranean assaults on my reputation except to act in a way that contradicted their libel.”

The Arizona senator and former prisoner of war was no match for the ugly campaign phone calls to voters and incendiary leaflets on windshields. It continues to rank as one of the ugliest takedowns in a presidential primary.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, another hopeful preparing to launch his 2016 campaign, has made his reputation as a political vaudevillian with a tough, snarling persona. He’ll face a test of his fortitude if the Bush campaign gets a copy of the background report the Mitt Romney campaign compiled on Christie when it was considering him to become the former Massachusetts governor’s running mate in 2012. “Eventful” is just one way to describe it.

Walker’s not clear of the firing range, either. There was one worrisome revelation in the Post story: A longtime friend from the Wisconsin governor’s college days attested to his kind nature. Uh oh. The first crack appears. Kindness is a private virtue which claims no place in presidential campaign strategies.

Kevin Rennie, a contributor to, is a lawyer and former state legislator in Connecticut.