Get a Life

Narrating your way into-and out of-the White House


Are this year's Democratic primary competitions shaping up as more examples of the nation's developing style of "cultural campaigning"? In the midst of the 2000 presidential race, reason magazine argued that, due largely to the growth of ever more intimate media, as well as the decline of a foreign military threat, presidential candidates were under pressure to expose more and more of their private, "backstage" lives, and to offer voters an ever more compelling story about themselves.

This process is not merely a matter of establishing the gravity of a candidate's character, which has always been a political necessity. Nor is it a question of shaping a politically advantageous candidate biography, a fundamental aspect of national campaigns since 1840. Rather, it is an issue of recognizing that candidates and voters must now find a way to deal with a revolutionary level of candidate exposure, and of intimacy that candidates and voters did not previously share. These developments have altered the political process.

While the military dimension of the presidency has obviously reasserted itself since 2000, the results in Iowa nevertheless appear to support the increasing political importance of personal exposure and storytelling, as do the dynamics in the competition for this week's New Hampshire vote.

"American leadership models," I wrote 2000, "are expanding [beyond their traditional limits] 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."

Does this describe what's happened so far in the contentious Democratic campaign? Arguably, it does. In Iowa, candidates with a good story to tell did much better than candidates without one. In the case of Sen. John Edwards, who came in second in Iowa, an effective personal story turned out to be more valuable than the vaunted "organization" that the mainstream press kept citing as a determining ingredient for Iowa success. Edwards didn't have much organization at all. What he had was a winning and empathetic presence and a brilliant stump speech, one that combined his populist politics with his own life narrative of (according to him) struggle against wealth and privilege. It worked; Edwards is a contender for a top-spot in New Hampshire, too.

Conversely, candidates who sought to limit their personal exposure paid for it. That would be Vermont's former Gov. Howard Dean, who came in third in Iowa despite the fact that the gatekeeper press covered him as though he had already won the state. Dean based his early campaign heavily (if not exclusively) on issues, especially his opposition to the Iraq war, and protected—to a remarkable degree—his and his family's privacy from media inquiry. There was very little in the way of character construction and less in the way of storytelling in his campaign, and the "backstage" story was off limits entirely. In their place, he offered high-profile endorsements, though in an age of political intimacy, endorsements don't mean very much. Dean's is a campaign that understood one technological revolution—the Internet, and its organizational opportunities—extremely well, while it ignored the demands of the remainder of the technological environment.

In the end, Dean could not insulate himself from coverage that has become nearly ubiquitous, and the character that emerged from footage of his campaign behavior apparently struck people as intemperate, thin-skinned, arrogant, and abrasive. Before it was over, one could add "crazy" to that list as well. (Dean also engaged in an exchange of negative ads with the Dick Gephardt campaign, a media war that has repeatedly been cited—plausibly—as having undermined the appeal of both candidates.)

Obviously, the big Dean story out of Iowa involved his manic Monday night Screech following his deflating third-place finish in the caucuses. But the singular focus on that memorable performance tended to obscure the more important fact that Dean—to the consternation of much of the gatekeeper press—had already faded significantly as a candidate before he started ranting. One lesson for issues candidacies like Dean's is that if one doesn't shape one's own persona and tell one's own story, these don't become non-factors. Rather, character and narrative become factors over which the campaign has surrendered control.

Thus, in the New Hampshire campaign, Dean has fed his wife (who turns out to be a telegenic asset) into the maw of a Diane Sawyer interview, identified himself as a "hockey dad," and though he is among the more cerebral candidates in years, has analyzed himself as too often "leading with his heart." (Mrs. Dean allowed that her husband "is a good dancer.") During the final weekend in New Hampshire, Dean was reported to be making appearances in the company of his mother.

Sen. John Kerry, on the other hand, has been making appearances in the company of an Oregon man named Jim Rassmann, a fellow Vietnam vet who credits Kerry with saving his life under fire. Kerry's been spotted by reporters hugging his late-arriving wife in the middle of giving his stump speech. He's developed a tight presentation that combines his own impressive history of activism and political leadership with his antipathy to White House policies. In short, he's got a decent "backstage" act and a great story to go with his résumé and his position papers, and it's been showing in the New Hampshire polls.

An interesting aspect of Kerry's success is that, at first, it confounded the mainstream press. Among the catch-up explanations that some reporters offered was that Kerry had gradually become a more effective campaigner. That's doubtless true, though it's probably true of all the other candidates as well. An alternate explanation is that, when most Iowa voters started focusing on the race in the closing days of the campaign, Kerry had something interesting to show them.

The major candidate in New Hampshire who seems not to have a backstage campaign is former Gen. Wesley Clark, and it will be interesting to see whether a military figure can dispense with these cultural issues in a time of war and establish his political credibility on a commander-in-chief foundation. Military figures have had a difficult time in politics since the days of Eisenhower—who didn't have to deal with "backstage" issues because they didn't exist. Clark's disappearance into his argyle sweater, and his bizarre performance at the final debate (in which he refused to address whether President Bush was a military "deserter") were not promising.

In the closing days of the Iowa campaign, when polls indicated that the race had tightened, some mainstream campaign observers began to focus on the political importance of biography. Edwards was recognized for the efficacy of his strategy, while Dean was criticized for failing to take such matters into account at all. (In Maureen Dowd's inimitable phrase, Dean "has a problem with his mythic arc.")

Veteran reporter and columnist Mark Shields, in a PBS appearance, evoked a maxim he attributed to Theodore White, whose book-length, insider accounts of campaigns throughout the 1960s established an entire genre of "Making of the President" political journalism: "The higher the political office," Shields quoted, "the more important the candidate." Shields explained that "people, when electing a governor or a president, want to have a sense of who that individual is…a comfort level; in the final analysis that's probably why George W. Bush is president today and not Al Gore." Dean's overall problem, Shields concluded, is that he "never subscribed to that, never dealt with it."

No, Dean didn't. But evoking Theodore White is particularly apt. In White's day, voters interested in the backstage campaign story had to wait for accounts by White or one of his imitators. No longer. White's insider genre is dead, and not by accident. The "backstage" is visible to us all; it's part of the campaign. We're all insiders now.