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The Politics of Personality Destruction

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The Glove: Mitt Romney gets ready to clean up.  

After Kerry’s defeat, many Democrats thought it a sensible goal to find a nominee in 2008 who wasn’t stage-managed and poll-tested within an inch of his or her life. But 2008 is supposed to be Hillary’s year. And, as millions discovered this March, she looks entirely plausible in a parody of an Apple campaign based on 1984.

Complicating matters further this cycle is the advent of YouTube. When television came along, politics may have become a scripted teleplay. But with YouTube, it’s a reality show, where the audience gets to see not only the final, blow-dried product, but the blow-drying itself (John Edwards, predictably, is the poster boy for this effect), as it happens in real time. This is a very profound change. YouTube has the power to expose the lies that make political theater possible. It has the power to show how backstage versions of our politicians can, at times, not just be unlovely but directly contradict the image of the person we see on television. If this new world of amateur surveillance makes candidates paranoid and self-censoring, their speech really could be like something out of 1984—measured, state-approved, one size fits all.

This year, each primary, in a sense, is a contest between those who are fake and those who are not. One of the main sources of Barack Obama’s appeal is that he’s not Hillary, as the Apple-Orwell-1984 mash-up so pitilessly pointed out. Rather, he seems a fellow with a low zombie quotient—someone who wrote a moving and introspective memoir, someone who sang the Muslim call to prayer for the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof and called it “one of the prettiest sounds on Earth at sunset.” (As Kristof wrote, this isn’t exactly going to endear the man to voters in Alabama.) On the Republican side, there’s Mitt Romney at one extreme (high zombie quotient), Rudy Giuliani at the other (still hewing to the pro-choice line, still talking with the cheerful opinionatedness of a New York City mayor), and McCain as a kind of phoniness parable, a cautionary example of what happens when a leopard tries to change its spots. Back in early 2000, McCain lived up to the overused moniker of maverick, saying whatever popped into his head, including his unmistakable conviction that Jerry Falwell and his brethren were “agents of intolerance.” Yet at the beginning of this cycle, when it was clear he stood a real chance of winning, the shorter odds corrupted him, prompting him to give the commencement speech at Falwell’s Liberty University and make a few other cynical overtures to the conservative base. It cost him dearly among independents, according to polls. Now, with some modifications, he’s back to his old self, criticizing Bush and cursing those who stand in his way. (Recently, when Senator John Cornyn gave him grief about his immigration bill, he succinctly retorted, “Fuck you.”)

“You’d be amazed at how many senators are shy people. They hate running for office. They just force themselves.”
—Gary Hart

It’s easy to blame the system, the endless fund-raising and staged events and media scrutiny that borders on the proctological, for the current epidemic of phoniness. If only, the argument goes, a system could be arranged where politicians’ real selves and real ideas were always and everywhere on display, we would have the politics we deserve. But it’s also possible that phoniness, at least in certain forms, serves an important purpose. It may even be a desirable quality in politics. It’s certainly something we consistently choose, consciously or not.

In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, a seminal social-science book that’s a de facto primer on effective political communication, sociologist Erving Goffman gives a great deal of thought to how people show themselves to the world, viewing all forms of human interaction as a kind of managed drama. “When the individual has no belief in his own act and no ultimate concern with the beliefs of his audience,” he writes, “we may call him cynical, reserving the term ‘sincere’ for the individuals who believe in the impression fostered by their own performance.” Anyone who’s listened to Mitt Romney for more than ten seconds can surely grasp this distinction.

But there’s a whole spectrum of behaviors, Goffman notes, between these two extremes. Sometimes sincere actors delude their audiences because their audiences want to be lied to—body-conscious women in clothing stores, patients taking placebos. Sometimes people grow into roles that were once unnatural. Sometimes they grow disenchanted with roles they once inhabited so well. And sometimes actors believe in the sincerity of their performance and its fraudulence all at once.

But whatever the circumstances, writes Goffman, part of playing a role well is learning how to suppress spontaneous reactions. In political terms, this is part of what’s known as message discipline. More broadly speaking, Goffman’s point is that it’s important, in any performance, to maintain the line between audience and actor. As Bob Kerrey, the former Nebraska governor and senator who ran in the Democratic primary in 1992, points out, “One of the things I discovered when I became governor of Nebraska is, ‘There’s a role I gotta play here.’ We didn’t have to put on robes and all that, obviously. But I had to learn how to be this person.”


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