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The Politics of Personality Destruction

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“The moment I remember,” Kerrey continues, “is discovering that Bill Clinton wanted to live in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. He had intentionally overnighted there when Jimmy Carter was president. He knew where the living spaces were. He knew what they looked like. He had a feel for what that experience was going to be, and it made him feel good. Whereas when I got to thinking about living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, it gave me the chills.”

What about it?

“What about it? I was single.”

And this suggests the biggest distinction between candidates like Kerrey and McCain versus candidates like Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan. It’s true that both have the same front-stage and backstage personas. But for people like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, the front-stage persona is the person backstage. Clinton especially: Even when the cameras aren’t rolling, he’s always performing. The fantasy about Clinton is that he’s exactly like you or me. But he’s nothing like you or me. After I followed him around Africa for seven days in 2005, this, to me, was the most startling revelation. Even in the most solitary circumstances, he lit up like a Christmas tree. He enjoyed performing in these quiet circumstances, often repeating the same jokes and anecdotes, including ones that had already appeared in his autobiography. It was like an imaginary camera was always rolling. Everything he said seemed meant for a dais.

Reagan, though less pyrotechnic in style, had a similar openness. Deaver points out, “His whole adult life had been public.” And by the time he became president, adds Ed Rollins, another one of his advisers, “having 10,000 people clapping for him didn’t do anything unusual to him. Some people, the adrenaline gets them so high they ramble.”

Or yelp, as was the case of Howard Dean—Yeeeeeeeow!

And in that yelp is the difference. For politicians like Dean, McCain, Kerrey, or (yes, sorry) Ross Perot, their backstage personas were what they trotted out front, not the other way around. For Dean, this meant we saw arrogance, hotheadedness, and a teenager’s response to a screaming crowd (Yeeeeeeeow!) in addition to his candor and passion. With Perot, we saw a barking loony. With Kerrey, we saw ambivalence (his Senate colleagues called him “Cosmic Bob”) and dread about losing his privacy. And with McCain, we see anger and irreverence.

These are all emotions we associate with private settings. They are not ones we generally haul out for public view.

Yet in almost every campaign cycle, the press has a brief romance with the candidates whose backstage personalities are also out front. They are invariably the most entertaining people as well as the most relatable. But they seldom hold up over the long haul. The rougher parts of themselves eventually start to worry us. “I would muuuuch rather have a phony, competent person in the White House than an incompetent, authentic person,” says Kerrey. “I’m not sure the two aren’t correlated: The greater competence you’ve got, the more you’ve got to be phony in order to get the job done. I want my president to put a mask on. When they’re negotiating for a national-security agreement? Put the mask on. When they’re negotiating with Congress? Put the mask on. If someone says to me a politician is phony, my response, at some point, is, ‘Well, they gotta be. That’s their job.’ ”

This front-stage–backstage distinction is a weirdly good predictor of who survives presidential races, and probably forces us to rethink what authenticity means in politics—and who, in 2008, might survive over the long haul. Obama, for instance, doesn’t suffer using this guideline. Even backstage, in one-on-one interviews, he’s smooth, collected, disciplined, in control.

Perhaps more surprising, though, is that Hillary doesn’t necessarily suffer using this guideline either. Like many people, I used to assume that it was public life, and more specifically the unique constraints of her marriage, that made her build a carapace around herself. And I’m sure it’s partly true. But people who’ve known Hillary a long time say her emotional life has always been opaque. As far back as Wellesley, her peers were in awe of her composure, trying to figure out who she was underneath. Though there probably is another Hillary buried somewhere in her, she’s spent so long in her current role that she’s more or less internalized it, the way soldiers internalize their place in the army.

Last month, the Times reported that Hillary has hired a communications consultant who trains his clients to “jam” and “get to cool.” It’s a rotten idea. Hillary may as well lead with her weakness, as she did in her Senate race, embracing the fact that she’s contained but serious about the job. If she can convince the public that she isn’t a cold schemer, but simply a woman of purpose and reserve—that that’s who she is, front stage and back—she has a shot. (It’s certainly one possible explanation for her strong poll numbers.) It might even be the ideal for the first female commander-in-chief.


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