The New Presidential Identity

(Page 3 of 3)

For that matter, Gore is willing to try to change identity characteristics by changing costume. The flap earlier this year over Gore’s earth-color outfits, apparently inspired by the "Alpha male" advice he was receiving from babe-feminist Naomi Wolf for $15,000 a month, is evidence of how adjustable his public identity can be.

But the most discomfiting episode of this sort in Gore’s career involves his appearance at the 1996 Democratic convention. On a night devoted to displaying the party’s compassion for and empathy with the electorate, Gore spoke of his sister’s difficult death from lung cancer in 1984. Much of Gore’s presentation may be described as a moving tribute to a beloved family member. An emotional Gore told the delegates and the national audience that this wrenching experience was the basis of his unwavering opposition to tobacco, only to have it revealed afterwards that Gore had maintained a working relationship with tobacco companies long after his sister died. Gore "explained" that these inconsistencies were the result of a state of "emotional numbness." He thus compounded the apparent exploitation of his loss. It was, all in all, a singularly appalling political use of one’s most private experiences. "Sometimes," he offered, "you never fully face up to things you ought to face up to."

That episode is largely forgotten, but it and the other examples illustrate Gore’s willingness to find political value in the most elemental aspects of his life, from grief to passion, and to expose them in an effort to connect with an electorate.

Of course, connecting with an electorate necessarily involves the creation of a public persona, often one that is exaggerated or even partly fictional. National campaigning has revolved around spinning such candidate "narratives" for most of the republic’s history. Traditionally, the old narratives imputed admirable characteristics to a given candidate: He was honest, plainspoken, brave, visionary, a man of the people, etc. These remained useful claims even as political fictions intensified with the introduction of PR methods in Eisenhower’s 1952 "Man from Abilene" campaign, which stressed his heartland origins. They remain so today. But with the whole man increasingly exposed, campaign narratives must build their character-spinning narratives not merely out of desirable qualities, but out of whole lives.

Obviously, for voters with strong party affiliations and those driven by issues, such narratives are not especially important. But a significant number of voters–up to 30 percent of the electorate–has no party affiliation, and are open to persuasion. In fact, this percentage is growing rapidly. Many of these voters size up the man, or at least the one they are shown. Victory in a national campaign depends on winning these voters, and candidates are anxious to show them someone with whom they can identify. Indeed, the standard view that some elections are about "character," while others hinge on issues, requires review. The cultural campaign subordinates issues within character.

Many political observers have objected that the process is pushing politics beyond the old public-relations embellishment of character, and into complete identity falsehood. The usual objection is that politics is now nearly indistinguishable from the star-making mechanics of show business. Such criticism should be targeted at the political media. The press paid no attention to political public-relations methods for 20 years after they were introduced in 1952, and is now paying little attention to reading the kinds of rhetorical and political narratives that are coming to dominate national campaigns.

Even so, what many critics are observing is not merely a marriage of politics and show-biz mechanics; it is a marriage of politics and modern popular culture itself. A show-business analogy implies a spectacle, like a circus or a parade, in which an audience sits passively and later applauds (or, if you prefer, votes for) the performances it has most enjoyed. But an audience observing a narrative tale, whether a myth, a soap opera, or a political campaign, is not at all passive; it is actively involved throughout in locating meaning, in identifying with characters, in comparing the action it is seeing with its own experience, in taking cues for future behavior, and in a variety of other observations and judgments about what it is seeing. Modern "cultural" candidates who are exposing their back-stage lives for political gain are not "casting" themselves in the role of "The President"; they are inviting the electorate to use them as figures in their own lives, while in exchange inviting that electorate into the presidency with them.

Early in his campaign, George W. Bush offered voters essentially one narrative: He was riding–compassionately–to the rescue of the nation, and would restore the honor it had lost at the hands of Clinton-Gore. The single most important line of Bush’s early campaign was delivered by vice-presidential nominee Dick Cheney when he told the Republican convention, "We’ll never look at one [Gore] without seeing the other [Clinton]." Beyond the role of rescuer, Bush offered little, aside from testimonials that would give them entry into his character.

But Gore did in fact separate himself from Clinton, in effect depriving Bush’s campaign of its narrative focus. Bush started to fade. Furthermore, Gore’s feisty speech, though it was open to all the criticism that it received, was built around an irreducible message: "I’ll Fight for You!" With Bush’s message of "I’ll Rescue You" blunted, and with no strong Bush character narrative in play (except the nagging "frat boy" image), Gore emerged as the only vital political presence attracting the attention of undecided and swing voters. It’s no surprise that, as all that swimming-pool water was gurgling down the drain on Labor Day, Bush’s support was gurgling away with it.

There’s one other notable way in which politics is taking the form of popular culture, and it involves the press. There was a time not very long ago when, if the elite political media pronounced an important speech to have failed in its purpose, then that became the public perception as well.

But the proliferation of media is ending the power of instant critical judgment that the political press enjoyed when there were three networks and a pair of national papers. Just as the power of The New York Times Book Review has ebbed, and as elite film critics have nearly disappeared, elite political judgment is swaying an ever-shrinking audience. There is now so much material available on cable and the Web–including an ever-greater number of political critics and analysts of every persuasion–that political attention is breaking into the kinds of separate niche markets and "taste cultures" that already exist for other narrative forms.

If 20 years ago, Gore had given what high-profile experts called "the wrong speech," the likelihood is that many voters would have accepted that he had miscalculated, and judged him accordingly. But if every campaign is a performance, and every rhetorical occasion a narrative, so too is every voter becoming his or her own expert. Small wonder, then, that the press was surprised.

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