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By 1968, Vietnam had made the military role a controversial one. Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey that year in part because he promised to end the war while retaining national honor. George McGovern’s 1972 debacle hinged on his inability to persuade voters that he was an appropriate leader of any kind. But Carter’s own foreign policy failures prepared the way for Ronald Reagan’s militantly vocal anti-communism; his "bear in the woods" campaign helped crush Walter Mondale’s 1984 bid. Though the Cold War had ebbed by the time of the George Bush—Michael Dukakis race in 1988, the Democrat’s notorious turn as Snoopy-in-the-tank during a campaign photo op effectively ended what slim chance he may have had.
Comes the Cold War’s end, and the entrance of Bill Clinton. Clinton unseated a president who had overseen a major conflict, the Gulf War, and went on to defeat Bob Dole, whose biography featured an impressive war record. His is the only full presidency of the Pax Americana, and it is difficult to generalize from the peculiarities of his leadership. But it is a reasonable conclusion not only that the office has deflated in significance in the absence of an identifiable foreign threat (in concert with the symbolic deflation of the Olympics and the space program, among other phenomena), but also that Clinton benefited from the shrinkage.
One of the seeming mysteries of the Clinton presidency is the failure of a series of still-unresolved security and military issues (technology transfer and the political use of military force among them) ever to develop "big story" proportions. One likely explanation for this failure is that Clinton’s presidency simply lacked the symbolic dimension of so many of his commander-in-chief predecessors. In other words, the president simply wasn’t as important in the daily lives of citizens. Because he mattered less, Clinton could get away with more.
The most obvious available Clinton parallel with Cold War—era candidates involves the decline of the so-called "character" issue. Gary Hart was driven from the 1988 campaign by a single photo, taken aboard the good ship Monkey Business, that supposedly called his character and judgment into question. Clinton was awash in such stories throughout his two terms. While one nearly toppled him, it was actually driven by legal rather than character issues. Not even an alleged rape affected his high approval rating. News images involving Clinton that were considerably more compromising than the Hart photo–such as video of Clinton groping a flight attendant–remained largely unexamined.
This, then, is the changing office for which Gore and Bush are contending. It is an office in the process of national redefinition. The military model obviously retains a certain degree of power: Colin Powell could well have had the GOP’s nomination for the asking and ex-POW John McCain staged a whirlwind challenge to Bush. Indeed, Bush’s own campaign has retained the traditional Republican focus on military stewardship. But McCain ultimately failed, Powell doesn’t want national office, and neither Gore nor Bush has or needs personal military credibility. The question becomes, What set of characteristics–what model–is developing to replace those that have shaped American leadership for so long?
The Clinton years and the notable candidacies of 2000 offer some possibilities. Presidential leadership used to require a sense of public dignity, for example, a figure who remained serenely above the fray. The new candidacies, on the other hand, are casual-Friday affairs. Presidents were once distant, mediated figures, visible only in carefully staged circumstances, but the new leadership seeks to display itself directly, constantly, and seemingly candidly. Presidents, even when they assumed a Jes’ Plain Folks appeal, nevertheless maintained a hierarchical relationship with the public; the new leadership seeks intimacy and even empathy with citizens. Presidents not only attempted to appear ceremonial, but to employ their public rhetoric ceremoniously by reaching for the carefully crafted memorable phrase ("Ask not what your country…"). Presidents and candidates are today conversational even on major rhetorical occasions. Presidents were once cerebral and certainly publicly asexual; the new leaders are physical. Presidents, in other words, used to assume a stiff public role for the sake of the office, keeping the rest of their lives out of view. Today, the presidency involves displaying the whole man.
In fact, presidents and would-be presidents may not have had much choice in the development of this model. There is a good argument that the process of increasing exposure has been imposed on the office and those who seek it by the growth of new media. That is, no candidate or campaign manager invented the role; successful candidates are those who may best fit a now-inescapable public niche.
The best argument that a new presidency has been inadvertently created and not invented is that this model was predicted, more or less, 15 years ago. In 1985, a communications scholar named Joshua Meyrowitz published No Sense of Place, a tome in which he argued that far-reaching social consequences were arising from electronic media. Most of Meyrowitz’s argument addressed apocalyptic social changes he thought were looming, but his chapter on political change was clearly prophetic. Meyrowitz was disturbed at these changes, as is evident from his worried title, "Lowering the Political Hero to Our Level." But one needn’t share his regard for political heroism to appreciate the value of his political insight.
Reduced to its essentials, Meyrowitz recognized the growing ability of new media to invade the political back stage, turning what had been private activity into yet another public, front-stage forum. Political leaders, he predicted, would no longer be able to maintain a larger-than-life aura; they would no longer be able to sharpen their public rhetoric; their constant exposure–their forced familiarity–would reduce them, in his opinion, to the standing of any other citizen. That is largely what has happened. Since Meyrowitz wrote, electronic media have been joined by digital media, and if anything the process he described has accelerated.
But what Meyrowitz did not foresee was that the invasion of a candidate’s once private back stage would provide whole new opportunities for political exploitation. The political genius of the age lies in both selectively exposing and even staging elements of one’s private life.
Bill Clinton has been a pioneer in such politics. In early 1998, to cite one memorable example, Clinton and his family vacationed in the Caribbean, allowing the press to accompany them. One famous evening, the president and his wife emerged on the beach in their swimsuits and danced affectionately. Cameramen, hidden in the bushes, photographed them, and the pictures were prominently displayed. The First Family soon complained bitterly of this paparazzi invasion of their privacy. Journalists, however, retorted that such "happy family" images just happened to be quite useful to the president, since the Paula Jones issue was soon to hit the news again, and that anyway, the Clintons could easily have left the official press behind. The whole "private" scene, charged critics, was staged.
Whether that particular situation was indeed staged remains ambiguous, but Clinton has certainly festooned his public life with deliberate personal exposure, from sweaty scenes of jogging, to sax-playing on a talk show, to going shopping in Washington’s stores, to his willingness to discuss his underwear on MTV. Cementing a seemingly direct relationship of equality with citizens has been a primary element of his political strategy.
The performance of the Gore ensemble at the convention–the loving daughter Karenna Gore Schiff, the respectful college pal Tommy Lee Jones, the dancing, high-fiving Tipper Gore, and fightin’ Al himself–was a veritable public bath in such exposure, a giant advance in the public manipulation of back-stage privacy. Beyond frozen turkeys and breakfast toast were the coming-of-age issues of student and young-family life. And beyond these were Gore’s struggle with conscience over Vietnam, and Tipper Gore’s struggle with depression. And beyond these was the elemental, bodice-ripping passion for his wife that Gore claimed was a spontaneous and irresistible reaction to the enthusiasm in the Staples Center. The whole Gore was served stripped on a platter, like one of those Harvard turkeys Jones remembered. Gore’s life, his back stage, melted seamlessly into the front stage of public life. Indeed, that was the idea behind Spike Jonze’s "home movie" that pretended to be a cinema vérité snatch of the vice president’s private life but was clearly shaped as a public document.
Win or lose, Al Gore seems particularly well situated to take advantage of the opportunities of political exposure. The reason is his remarkable capacity for politicizing his personal life, and for reconfiguring his public identity. Indeed, Gore has a reflex for autobiographical embellishment that has gotten him into difficulty.
For example, Gore has in the past told stories about his service in Vietnam in which his actual behind-the-lines experience as a reporter is augmented with dramatic scenes of danger, of being under fire; such scenes have been challenged by critics. Similarly, Gore has claimed that the 1970 best-selling tear-jerker Love Story was in some way inspired by his own experiences, a claim that apparently has no basis in fact. The most famous such yarn involves the greatly exaggerated role that he has claimed in the development of the Internet. Al Gore is not only whoever he thinks he has to be politically at any given time (a characteristic common to many politicians), he also was anybody that he thinks it was useful to have been.