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The Politics of Personality Destruction

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McCain has the opposite problem. As exhilarating as it would be for someone as candid as he is to step into the Oval Office, voters would have to radically depart from their previous patterns to choose a man whose backstage rawness was in full frontal view. Right until September 10, New Yorkers would have said that Giuliani’s backstage rawness was in full frontal view, too (as when he told a ferret-loving talk-show caller, “There is something really, really very sad about you”). But the events of September 11 recast his front-stage persona from bully to hero, and as the Times pointed out last week, he’s been extremely disciplined on the trail, keeping his cheerful insults to a minimum. (And this may explain his good poll numbers.) Though many, especially New Yorkers, are still waiting for the other Rudy, the sharp-tongued and freewheeling egomaniac (in the manner of most New York City mayors), to reappear.

One of the most stunning asides Goffman makes in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life is based not on his own observation but that of Robert Ezra Park, a founder of the Chicago School of sociology. He noted that the word person itself comes from the Latin word persona, or actor’s mask. “Insofar as this mask represents the conception we have formed of ourselves—the role we are striving to live up to—this mask is our truer self, the person we would like to be,” Goffman quotes him as saying.

Viewed in this light, the performances our politicians give aren’t necessarily cynical but aspirational, idealistic even: Some are using this process to become the person they think they’re meant to be. All the butter sculptures and corn dogs and ceaseless repetition of platitudes—this bizarre, debasing torture of our candidates—may actually contribute to something positive. Phoniness may just be a kind of chrysalis, a stage a politician must pass through in order to become presidential. The trouble is, not all of them make it.


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