The New Presidential Identity


Nobody ever accused American presidential politics of suffering from too much dignity, but the 2000 election has been a singularly post-labial affair. In what is likely to remain the signature moment of the campaign, Democratic nominee Al Gore grabbed his wife Tipper in front of thousands of screaming delegates at the party convention in Los Angeles and kissed her passionately for–according to authoritative sources–more than three seconds. Pressed between their firm but broadcast, cabled, satellited, and videostreamed lips lies an elusive solution to a major Washington mystery: How could Gore's convention have seemed such an embarrassment and yet have solved so many of his political problems?

The Kiss, for example, left nearly the whole of the elite press corps grimacing. Conservative critics such as columnist Robert Novak found the sight "disgusting"; right-winger Cal Thomas thought that the Gores "should have gotten a room." No surprise there. But even a centrist political reporter like Jack Germond of The Baltimore Sun thought the moment "X-rated," while presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin said on PBS that watching the Gores made her feel like an intruder.

Most political critics also grimaced at Gore's I'll-Fight-for-You acceptance speech. Gore got credit for affect, because he managed to avoid sounding like a robot in need of major reprogramming. But the "most important speech of Gore's life" was almost universally judged to be "the wrong speech." It was no good because it was a "class warfare" speech in a time of unprecedented prosperity; it was no good because it lacked the requisite statement of the candidate's grand "vision"; it was no good because it was really a laundry list of programs appropriate to a state-of-the-union address; it was no good because, according to Bill Clinton himself, Gore wasn't addressing the country's "optimism."

Indeed, the whole, often stupefying Democratic convention was judged to be no good. The opinion-poll lead enjoyed by Republican nominee George W. Bush in the wake of the GOP convention actually seemed to grow each day the Democrats met. To the degree that there was a consensus among the agenda-setting political media, it was that Bush could pile up such a formidable lead by Labor Day that Gore simply wouldn't be able to overcome it. From the point of view of professional politics-watchers, the political season was threatening to be historically brief.

All these judgments were, at the time they were delivered, entirely reasonable, at least based on the last half-century of presidential politicking. They also turned out to be almost entirely wrong. As the nation's swimming pools drained at the end of Labor Day weekend, most polls reflected a neck-and-neck contest, with some indicating a small Gore lead. Newsweek actually had the vice president 10 points ahead. Bush seemed to have lost traction, his campaign sounding increasingly reactive. One could reportedly smell panic at The Palm, a favored hangout of Beltway Republicans, as the GOP advantage in the Electoral College threatened to disintegrate. On the other hand, The Washington Post announced on its front page that the "Gore camp's confidence takes flight."

By the usual Washington standards, none of this made much sense. Gore was always expected to get a post-convention "bounce," but such bounces always faded. Why didn't Gore's? What had Bush done wrong? And why didn't Gore suffer any consequences from his supposed convention mistakes, rhetorical and otherwise? How could Gore's dull convention, in which his college roommate talked about defrosting turkeys, his daughter talked about toast for breakfast, and his wife showed pictures of Gore dressed as Frankenstein's monster–all topped off by The Kiss and "the wrong speech"–have worked so much to his advantage? And, perhaps most important, what had happened to the standards by which the nation's political gatekeepers have long judged campaign success and failure?

You could take your pick of Washington's early answers. Democrats were making much smarter–and unanswered–media buys. Gore had defused Bush's best issue–the morality-honor-dignity package–by choosing the publicly pious Sen. Joe Lieberman as his running mate. Lieberman, known only for being an early critic of Clinton's personal behavior, had enabled Gore to de-Clintonize his candidacy. Bush had allowed Gore to dominate the news for weeks. Bush's own running mate, Dick Cheney, was proving to be a lethargic campaigner with stock-option problems. Bush's team of Texan managers was inexperienced in national campaigning. Etc.

These are all worthy answers, and they all knowledgeably address aspects of the Realpolitik of presidential campaigning. But they are all after-the-fact scrambling by a press corps addressing its own sense of surprise. The fact is that Gore's remarkable early success was seemingly built on an unfathomable foundation.

The problem is that the campaign press was looking for answers in the wrong place. It examined politics from within. But American politics, as reflected in the unusual dynamics of the 2000 campaign, has itself been reshaped. The historic geopolitical changes of the past decade, along with the remarkable development of new media, have resulted in a succession of quiet, interlocking political reactions. American leadership models, once limited to a handful of rhetorical types, are expanding to include different character roles; successful public life is becoming ever more self-revelatory; the relationship between citizens and their elected officials is becoming increasingly direct and personal; the traditional gatekeeper political press is losing its power and significance.

This sounds less like politics as it has been practiced for decades than it does like the dynamics of popular culture. And in fact that is the point. American politics in the wake of the Cold War, and in the context of invasive new media, is readjusting itself according to a familiar cultural model. Al Gore, whether by design or chance, is helping to create what might be called the cultural campaign. Between the conventions and Labor Day, he was telling voters a more compelling story.

In the course of the presidency's two centuries, politicians have approached the office with a variety of rhetorical and behavioral styles. Some, like William Jennings Bryan and Jimmy Carter, have adhered to an essentially religious model, an approach that can easily transmute into that of a mere scold. Others, like William McKinley and Calvin Coolidge, have adopted the public attitude of the taciturn business CEO. A few, like Woodrow Wilson and Adlai Stevenson, have been professorial, though many more (usually unsuccessful) candidates have been a closely related type: the wonk, a character often nominated in recent years by the Democratic Party.

Many candidates, whatever else they may be, try to reserve some space for being Jes' Plain Folks. In fact, the claim to humble origins has been a mark of presidential candidacy since William Henry Harrison's 1840 campaign advertised that he was born in a log cabin, though Harrison was actually born comfortably middle class. Both George W. Bush and Al Gore, sons of power and privilege, made shameless claim to the Jes' Plain Folks identity in their respective convention acceptance speeches, embracing memories of their supposedly humble pasts.

The single most important leadership model of the past half-century, however, has been military. Throughout the Cold War (with the important exception of the Vietnam years), the commander-in-chief function of the presidency trumped all other models. Even if a candidate had not had the illustrious career that Dwight Eisenhower brought to the 1952 and 1956 campaigns, military credibility was essential in gaining the office.

It would be difficult to overstate the effect on American culture of an ever-present foreign threat. It reshaped almost every public activity, from the Olympics to the space program, transforming non-political figures such as astronauts (John Glenn), concert pianists (Van Cliburn), swimmers (Mark Spitz), and even hockey players into symbolic leaders of national significance. The role of president was consumed by it, and in fact a long series of contests between Republican "warriors" and Democratic "wonks" resulted in the postwar domination of the White House by the GOP.

It has been largely forgotten, for example, that John F. Kennedy campaigned in 1960 as a fiercer cold warrior than Richard Nixon. JFK accused the Republicans of allowing a "missile gap" to open, and promised to go to war to defend a pair of Pacific islands (Quemoy and Matsu) that no one had ever heard of before. Barry Goldwater's 1964 campaign foundered on accusations by his own Republican rivals that he would be an irresponsible commander-in-chief, a charge effectively exploited by Lyndon Johnson.

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.

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.