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The Politics of Personality Destruction

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The Cowboy: Barack Obama, the law of the West.  

Paul Begala, one of the senior advisers to Bill Clinton in 1992, makes a useful observation about his former boss, and oddly enough, he invokes Goffman to do it. “Erving Goffman used to make the distinction between front stage and backstage personas,” he says. The terms are self-explanatory—front stage is who the audience sees, and backstage is who intimates see, the person we suppress while performing. “Bill Clinton has the least distance between his front stage and his backstage personas out of anyone I know.”

Deaver says the same thing about Ronald Reagan. It can’t be an accident that both of these men were the two most popular presidents of the late-twentieth century. Nor can it be an accident that men with more private selves—Gore, Kerry, Dole—had a harder time when they stepped into the limelight. I ask Kerry’s former campaign adviser Mary Beth Cahill when the senator seemed most like himself on the campaign trail, and her answer is startling: “On the plane, I think, when he’d be in the front cabin, playing his guitar by himself.” He was most like himself, in other words, when he was alone.

Yet here’s a wrinkle: McCain is also the same both front stage and back. Many mavericks are. Bob Kerrey. Chuck Hagel. (Also both Vietnam vets, it should be noted.) So why do they seem like longer shots for president? What makes them different? Why don’t they have the same success?

‘They wouldn’t let me be funny!” Dole is saying, then catches himself. “Well, they.” He leans back. He’s sitting in one of the stateliest rooms in his suite at Alston & Bird, yet looking uncharacteristically informal: navy slacks and no jacket, legs stretched way out, as if lounging on a deck chair. “They kind of said, ‘We don’t want a comedian. This is serious business.’”

Bob Dole is not a man whose front-stage and backstage personas were the same, at least while he was in politics. Backstage, Dole was a total cut-up; front stage, he was stiff, gruff—and 1996 was a real improvement over 1988, when he made a credible primary run. (Then, his front-stage persona was perilously close to Darth Vader’s, minus the wheezing.) So one of the first questions I ask when I visit him at his law office in Washington is, Why wasn’t he funny on the stump? And his answer is, They wouldn’t let me.

“I don’t think anyone asked him not to be funny,” explains William Lacy, a former Dole adviser. “We just saw the importance of more message discipline, of having a message every day to get across, and that’s something he struggled with.” The trouble with humor, explains Lacy, is that it’s discursive—once Dole got rolling, there was no stopping him. That worked just fine when he first came of age politically, stopping in people’s farmhouses and putting 50,000 miles on his car, but television changed all that. He never got used to it. Bob Dole the person was so alienated from Bob Dole the brand that he referred to it—referred to himself—in the third person.

“I had trouble staying on message, yeah, that was one of my problems,” says Dole. “I’d wander into some forest somewhere and finally get back to where I was supposed to be. But after you give the same speech over and over, you don’t have the enthusiasm! It’s not like, Boy, I’ve got a great speech here—I’m going to go out and wow the crowd!”

Indeed, that tends to be something natural performers, like Clinton and Reagan, are far better at pulling off. To them, it doesn’t feel like dreary repetition. The transaction with the crowd, not the words themselves, gives them energy.

I ask Dole about the pageantry and props that come with the territory. “Yeah, I found it hard to do a lot of those things,” he says. “All the stupid things you wear—the jackets are okay, but the aprons and big tall chef’s caps while you’re serving chop suey or whatever it is. You look like a monkey.”

He thinks some more, then remembers something. “A parade in Illinois—Wheaton, Illinois—Bob Woodward’s hometown, think his father was a judge there.” Dole is filled with such asides. “It wasn’t that I was wearing anything. But I remember the incident well, because this lady came rushing out with her baby and handed me her baby. But I don’t use my right arm. And my left is not too strong. So, uh, I’m just scared to death.”

He never says what happened to the child. He simply says what happened next: “Somebody next to me got under me right away and caught the baby.”


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