The Political-Celebrity Complex

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Politicians have used swimsuit photo ops to signal virility from the Kennedy era through to Obama's surfing shots during last year's presidential run, but no world leader disrobes for the cameras with quite as much gusto as Vladimir Putin. The Russian ruler's first batch of topless vacation snaps, which came out in 2007 and paired his oddly bellied bulk with a fishing rod and a Panama, were a tame if tasteless display of masculinity. The appearance last week of a second collection, however, defies all reason. Here's Putin astride a horse, in a tree, breaking a branch, emerging from the depths mid–butterfly stroke. It's a far cry from Brezhnev's famous hunts (where the secretary general favored jaunty sweaters and pine-decorated Tyrolean hats). These pictures seem designed to illustrate a kind of mythical communion with nature itself. This Putin is less likely to shoot a bear than to wrestle it, make love to it, or ride it into the sunset.

What the hell is going on here? Is Putin engaging in some sort of Freudian flex-off with Obama as Russian subs prowl the Atlantic? Tweaking his pal Berlusconi, whose recent exposure to the telephoto lens was less voluntary? (And which, sadly, we can't include in our accompanying slideshow of politicians in bathing suits through the ages.) Or is the audience for these shots strictly domestic? Some in Russia have noticed that the 2007 photos coincided with a nationwide campaign for higher birth rates. Perhaps they were a kind of state-sponsored aphrodisiac for the homeland's ladies. This time around, though, according to the Guardian, Putin actively courted Western photographers to join him on his Siberian trip, so he seems to have had an international audience in mind.

Russia is actually on the cutting edge of a new trend in political personality cults: It is now possible for a politician to be a respected, feared, or hated ruler and a lighthearted celebrity story without contradiction. This foliation is markedly different from the usual attempts to "humanize" a leader. It is tantamount to creating two separate avatars — man-as-his-office and man-as-tabloid-fodder. There is Prime Minister Berlusconi and "Il Cavaliere," the priapic jester. President Sarkozy and "Sarko," Carla Bruni's husband. Prime Minister Putin and a Siberian centaur-merman.

You can see this happening Stateside as well. The Obama administration, as Jennifer Senior describes in her cover story from last week, "The Message Is the Message," skillfully feeds media interests high and low; as one result, the president's approval ratings and his ability to sell magazines have become two distinct indicators. Hundreds of thousands of people who detest Obama's policies will happily flip through a pictorial of Michelle's dresses or coo at Bo.

The upside and the downside of this is that it may now become harder for a personal scandal to remove a politician from office. Once a head of state moves into the tabloid sphere next to Jon and Kate, we expect scandal. The tabloid-fame contract requires constant acceleration. We're now done with Putin's pecs — the next batch needs to be funnier, darker, or more obscene. On the one hand, this means a politician's private misdeeds will be more likely forgiven if they don't impede his performance or involve misuse of state funds. On the other, this opening-up of the celebrity dimension further muddies the issue of whom people vote for: the public figure or the tabloid avatar. This is how we end up with Sarah Palin, and they with Vladimir Putin rearing his head from the icy waters of the Baikal.