The Big Idea

Candidates and Killers

It’s getting harder and harder to tell them apart.

When reporters set out to explore the backgrounds of sensational murderers, the neighbors typically claim surprise. The oft-parodied description of the spree or serial killer next door is: “He was a nice man who lived quietly and kept to himself.” The folks nearby never seemed to notice that Jim the Ripper’s visitors stayed forever, that he loved running his chainsaw indoors, or that the chili he brought to the potluck tasted a bit “off.”

When the same journalists are assigned to unearth the early lives of presidential candidates, they get just the opposite response from childhood friends, teachers, and family. Everyone says: “We all used to joke about how Willie was going to be president someday.” Early indications of a proclivity to become leader of the free world include attending school on a regular basis, having friends, and going to  the prom.

Questioned about David Garvin, who shot three people to death in Greenwich Village last week, one former co-worker offered the classical description of him as ”quiet and unassuming.” True to form, the Phoenix neighbors of Mark Goudeau, a violent ex-con charged with crimes linked to the “Baseline Killer,” described him as “a sweet, sweet guy” and a “hard worker.” Michael Devlin, accused of kidnapping and imprisoning two young boys in the St. Louis suburbs, was predictably “quiet” and “nice,” even “a big friendly marshmallow.”

By contrast, profilers digging into Barack Obama’s early days find signs of future triumph everywhere. Obama’s half-sister was recently quoted in the New York Times saying, ”There was always a joke between my mom and Barack that he would be the first black president.” Obama’s third-grade teacher in Indonesia recalls him writing an essay for school titled, “I want to be a president” (whether in Washington or Jakarta, she did not specify). Such early impressions hardly make Obama unique. “If there was ever going to be a woman president, we thought Hillary would be at the top of the list,” said a college classmate of Mrs. Clinton’s. One of Giuliani’s childhood friends from Massapequa recalled for Newsday, “We’d joke about it, ‘Oh there’s Rudolph William Louis Giuliani 3d, the first Italian-Catholic President of the United States.’ ” A fellow POW said that John McCain revealed his presidential ambitions in 1970 at the Hanoi Hilton. Al Gore regularly signaled his presidential plans from the crib.

In the case of both candidates and killers, people reach for these chestnuts because they think it’s what they’re supposed to say. They’re following a natural human instinct to take credit for seeing the future when it’s good and to avoid blame for missing it when it turns out to be bad. According to this peculiar form of hindsight bias, the great are marked early, while the notorious lurk invisibly among us.

But are spree killers and candidates really so easy to tell apart? An obsession with publicity and getting even are only the most obvious thing Rudy Giuliani and Son of Sam have in common. Newt Gingrich and Washington sniper John Allen Muhammed are both charismatic leaders, quick to anger, and a bit paranoid. John Kerry and the Unabomber are both loners—though with different-sized cabins out West. And of course, both politician and killer tend to be credit hogs. Al Gore claimed he invented the Internet; the Zodiac killer, subject of a new movie, took credit for murders he probably didn’t even commit. 

These days, the old formulas are often inverted. The newest instinct seems to be for the neighbors to say they knew the weirdo next-door was a ticking time bomb even before he was picked up for the Carrot Peeler Massacre. An actress who appeared in one of the Village shooter’s independent films described him as volatile and obsessive. ”Of all the people I’ve known in my life, for anybody to go postal, this is the least surprising,” she told the Times. And when it comes to candidates, not one of his classmates ever seems to have marked George W. Bush as a leader of the future. Asked during the 2000 campaign what his Andover classmates would have thought if they had been told back then that he would run for president, one responded that “the reaction would have been gales of laughter.”

I will avoid here any tasteless wisecracks about Bush turning out to be both candidate and killer. But it is getting harder to tell them  apart from their press clippings. Of whom was it said:

A) “He was a gung-ho type of person.”
B) “He was the straightest guy I knew. The most we ever did was go to a party and drink beer.”
C) “I always knew that [he] was going to do something great.”
D) He was competitive, even in fishing. “It was, ‘I caught seven fish and you only caught six.’ “
E) “He’s so smart. His mind just works a lot differently than others’.”
F) ”He was deeply competent, organized, and good at what he did.”
G) “Just a nice guy, like a big teddy bear.”

(See answers at bottom)

These days, politicians  and cutthroats even seem to be swapping clichés. The thrust of the latest Times piece about Obama’s boyhood years is that everyone around him did not, in fact, know he was going to grow up to be president. With his mixed-race background and years growing up in Indonesia, Obama was different from other kids. He didn’t really fit in at his elite private school in Hawaii.  He was—dare I say it?—quiet and kept to himself.

A) William Suff, the Riverside Prostitute Killer, according to a neighbor.
B) George W. Bush, according to an ex-girlfriend.
C) Andrew Mickel, convicted cop killer, according a boyhood friend.
D) Dick Cheney, according to a childhood friend.
E) Mickel again, according to another childhood friend.
F) Dennis Rader, the BTK killer, according to a friend.
G) Michael Devlin, accused kidnapper, according to a classmate.