Citizen Wolff

I have been trying to understand the political – and media – meaning of Jesse “the Body” Ventura and Warren Beatty and now Donald Trump and, indeed, the remarkable rise of George W. Bush, without success. Until, that is, an acquaintance in Democratic Party circles called me up and asked if I was serious about going into politics.

“Excuse me?”

I’d given an interview, I was reminded, in which I had said that at the rate things are going it seemed possible that even I could end up as president.

“There are people,” he said, “who might be interested in having such a discussion about your thoughts insofar as a political future.”

My acquaintance – not someone with a mischievous sense of humor – started to outline some current thinking about what it takes to develop what he familiarly termed “a personal brand” in politics today. The main principle, he said, was insurgency, which, he pointed out, continuing to switch with ease between political and new-media vocabularies, was really guerrilla marketing. The challenge, he said, was to cut through the clutter. You had to have the ability to project a unique and identifiable style.

“It’s all about personae,” he said, nailing the formula. “John McCain,” he added, “is really quite an odd duck, but he’s clicked in.”

I suddenly thought that my friend, as representative a political type as they come – ambitious, earnest, policy-obsessed, and painfully square – was bored silly with politics, too.

“We need,” he said, “people like you to get involved in the political process.”

This is the kind of civic-minded plea that is customarily directed at salt-of-the-earth types (if there are such types left). The non-cynics. But here I had the distinct feeling that people like me meant odd people, unexpected people, difficult people. The counterintuitive. Wing nuts who could do television.

“It’s personality. It’s about whether you’re comfortable enough with yourself to put yourself out there and project yourself and let people get to know you as you are. Nobody can hide anymore. Nobody can repress. It’s useless to pretend you’re just a straight arrow – nobody believes you anyway. You are what you are. Hang a lantern on it.”

I could do this, I thought. I could be good.

I tried to explain to my wife – the possible future First Lady – why this made sense. Beyond the 24-7 attention of the media – which, in the end, made everyone look like a disturbed individual anyway – there clearly is some different style and aesthetic thing going on in politics. The triumph of the nerd, the Seinfeldization of America, the media-breakdown thing, the rise of the World Wrestling Federation (and NASCAR – although what is NASCAR?) were bound to affect voter preferences. There was just no context in which Mr. Policy-in-a-Suit looked like America or talked like America anymore. I had a theory here – which my wife did not immediately accept – that in fact the weirder you were, the more normal television made you look; and, conversely, the stiffer and tighter you were, the weirder you looked.

“This is just everybody,” said my wife, who is very levelheaded and who knows a thing or two about the Democrats, “freaking out about Gore.”

If I had now become elected-official material, it was a freak-out on a grand scale. But perhaps this should not be a surprise. The year’s political extremes are obvious: Al Gore is the least interesting political figure and Jesse “the Body” Ventura the most interesting. (By the same token, I think you can also make the case that Gore and Clinton define opposite poles – one is the very good boy and one is the very essence of bad boy, and it is certainly clear with whom we would rather spend our time.)

It was a heavy-handed irony: Gore represented a certain obvious order of perfection – even an order of personal virtue – at a moment in American life when we have actually gotten fairly comfortable with everybody’s sins and lapses and neediness. It is the move from network to cable. Hipness – or contrariness, or anti-yuppiness, or home-school oddness, or libertarian I-just-don’t-care-ness, or seven-step live-and-let-live-ness – had become, if not a voting bloc, at least a point of view that couldn’t be ignored.

Part of the odd thing about the effort to analyze Gore’s political vulnerabilities is that he really has no political vulnerabilities. His biography is perfect. His intelligence is obvious. His personal rectitude is believable. (And he’s tall.) As a result, he is everyone else’s foil. Against his classic model, everyone else is what Saul Bellow calls a contrast gainer. By looking odd, strange, unexpected, loopy, even inexperienced, everybody looks more interesting next to Gore.

Gore’s perfection is so extreme that even Bradley gets to be novel and interesting – at least Bradley left the Senate, and is, therefore, advantageously, a quitter; the whiff of petulance and sullenness he offers is, next to Gore’s antiseptic air, almost romantic.

Similarly, it is Gore’s rectitude and experience and straight living and vast familiarity with the issues that makes W’s stunning inexperience (not only in politics but with virtually any sort of sustained endeavor), his relatively wastrel existence, and his relaxed attitude toward affairs of state look awfully attractive. He seems fun. He’s an underachiever. A pistol, but keeping it under control. He seems more like us than Gore does. In fact, he seems more like Clinton than Gore does.

What is not Gore is what is interesting.

Or what is not politics is what is interesting.

Pundits now speak of the Clinton phenomenon as deriving from a secret language, how he uses his body – the bitten lip, the stepping forward, the teariness – to communicate outside the bureaucratic-ese envelope. But how much better would it be if you didn’t have to communicate secretly, if you were up front about how uninteresting, mind-bogglingly remote, and impersonal all this is? And, indeed, W seems close to admitting this. So W’s difficulties in having a policy discussion become a substantial virtue, while Gore’s ease with the issues and intricacies of government get him nothing but spitballs.

I wished suddenly I had been more of a class cutup.

Arguably, not since the election of JFK have the allure and power of personality been so much more important than any political or ideological issues. This is obviously not a coincidence. Nineteen fifty-nine was the last most equanimous moment in postwar political history, and now, with a rocket-ship Dow and amazing new technologies (think of the Internet and e-commerce as similar to the household-appliance revolution of the fifties), we have trumped that.

Still, it is noteworthy that in the search for new and compelling personalities on the political scene, no one uses the word charisma. Charisma indicates a person set too far apart; charisma is too class-minded. It suggests Kennedy coolness, which is remoteness by any other name. (Kennedy would never have had a good cry with the American people.) Indeed, Gore is the kind of guy who, a generation ago, people would surely have said had charisma.

“Warmth” and “likability” are the postmodern versions of charisma, born out of the Reagan era and refined into something near druglike during the Clinton years. But the warmth-and-likability measure seems to have become more than a little suspect. We seem to have a growing understanding that the ability to project warmth to millions of people is sociopathic.

The standard is changing. We don’t want suaveness, we don’t want seduction. We don’t necessarily want a leading man. Rather, we seem to want to counterprogram. To consciously do the opposite of what makes sense. I think it’s possible that what we are seeing is the development of a political inclination or even movement that is largely about throwing a wrench into the works.

Hillary’s résumé, for instance, is to die for. What else could we want? What else do they do in the Senate but wonk around and trade off who’s done what for whom before? Hillary’s got all the wonk and favor-bank credentials you could ever dream of. But that’s the point. The predictable is painful. It is not really that we think Hillary’s putting on a baseball hat is manipulative – we just think it’s unoriginal.

Rudy, on the other hand, gets stranger and stranger every day. But the very lack of conventional strategy is, if nothing else, more interesting than the conventional. Obviously, he should not become a United States senator. On the other hand, as a piece of counterprogramming, why not? It’s eccentric. Novel. Ironic. Rudy will make a noise – however dissonant.

There is some willful subversion going on. It is partly a political point – a vote against business as usual – but I think it would be wrong to underestimate the inclination to cast a vote for pure entertainment value. He (or she) is entertaining to me, amuses me, quickens my pulse, makes me stop and pay attention – that is motivation, perhaps powerful motivation.

Trump, obviously, is pushing this further still. He is entertaining himself and the media and the electorate (and even making a certain sort of sophisticated political point, which is that an entrepreneur and public figure is larger than politics and politicians). This is performance art. The suggestion the other day by Roger Stone, the venerable Republican consultant now advising the Trump campaign, that Trump’s base was his database of 6.5 million gamblers and hotel guests was, well, witty – and yet who could say that a portion of those gamblers and guests wouldn’t also be amused enough to actually vote for him? In a way, it is actually all about getting the joke.

It is Beatty who, with the waning of his film career, has most attentively considered the possibilities for using a madcap figure to make a political statement. Where Beatty (the recipient, last week, of the Americans for Democratic Action’s Eleanor Roosevelt Award) seems to get bogged down is that both he and his alter egos are relatively conventional – and strangely earnest – in their politics. That is why he is not being taken more seriously than he is. He doesn’t acknowledge the joke and is, therefore, something of a bore.

The state of the art is very clearly in Minnesota. It’s bizarrely reasonable to see Jesse the Body moving politics – political style as well as thinking – as much as, say, George Wallace did. It will be not racial politics but non-politics, anti-politics, cable-TV politics that the Minnesota governor defines. Indeed, Larry King, probably the single most important person in any political campaign, has been telling people that to him Jesse is the most interesting political figure in the country today.

“I really don’t think,” said my literal-minded wife, “that a media columnist is in the same league as a professional wrestler.”

“You’re wrong there,” I said.


Citizen Wolff