Backstage Passes

What it takes to run for president in the age of media intimacy.


America's real-time political explainers are a game bunch. There's nothing that happens in the course of a campaign, a speech, a candidate's TV appearance, or any event inside or outside the Beltway that they can't quickly filter, analyze, and judge. People such as CNN's Jeff Greenfield, Fox's Brit Hume, MSNBC's Chris Matthews, PBS' team of Mark Shields and David Brooks, and an overflowing green room of others like them are, in fact, pretty good at high-pressure instant analysis. They know the players, they've heard all the stump speeches, and there's not much that happens that they haven't seen before. That's what makes them experts.

So it was novel to see them all dumbfounded. This year's Democratic primaries presented them with a spectacle that no one could remember witnessing before: the Genteel Debate.

Once the field of Democratic contenders was past Iowa and New Hampshire, most of the candidates ceased having much to say about each other, even in high-profile TV "debates" in delegate-rich states such as Michigan. True, vanity candidates Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton kept up a rhetorical drumbeat, and once in a while even the major contenders spoke an impolite word, especially when approaching the March 2 "Super Tuesday" contests. But only the early candidate forums featured any really sharp exchanges, with various hopefuls going after early front-runner Howard Dean. Understandably, Dean didn't much like being a punching bag, and he reportedly asked Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe to intervene. But since one purpose of the primary season is, supposedly, to test the contenders without actually destroying them, the friction seemed not only normal but also desirable.

Then it all but stopped. No sooner had the candidates assembled in South Carolina than they became more gracious than a porch full of Old Charleston belles. John Kerry, the new pack leader coming out of New Hampshire, was pronounced the "winner" of that state's late-January debate if only because—and this was the phrase news junkies heard from every real-time analyst—"no one laid a glove on him." That was true as far as it went. The more intriguing realization was that no one had tried.

"I don't know if these guys were all auditioning for vice president or what was going on," a perplexed Mark Shields told a PBS audience the next day. "But campaigns are about differences. There are differences in value, differences in experience, differences in vision, differences in character, personality, and temperament. And boy, you wouldn't have known it last night." Shields' debating partner, New York Times columnist David Brooks, agreed. "I thought at the debate they were going to endorse [John Kerry] at the end," he said. "It was so gentle." Brooks found the debate "a waste of time."

All Politics Is Personal

Was it? Shields, Brooks, and other high-profile refs of pro politics assumed the real value of such a debate is to draw attention to "difference" through rhetorical exchange. That obviously makes sense, and it is certainly true that such figures as Joe Lieberman and Wesley Clark allowed their candidacies to expire without really exploiting any of the televised debates and making a determined last-ditch rhetorical stand.

On the other hand, debate isn't what it used to be. It's not all-day exchanges between the likes of Lincoln and Douglas; it's not even the soundbites about, say, "missile gaps" that marked the Kennedy-Nixon contest a century later. During the last decade, rhetorical exchange has been playing second fiddle to a different phenomenon entirely: the display of identities.

In the course of the 2000 presidential race, I argued that, due partly to the growth of ever more invasive and intimate media and partly to the decline of a foreign military threat, presidential candidates were under continuing pressure to change their whole concept of campaigning. Since then the military dimension of the presidency obviously has reasserted itself, but the role of invasive media—which capture the once-private "backstage" activities of politicians and turn them into yet another public, front-stage forum—has only grown.

In "The New Presidential Identity" (November 2000), I wrote that geopolitical and technological changes "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 emerging political style, I claimed, "sounds less like politics as it has been practiced for decades than it does like the dynamics of popular culture."

The unfolding of the Democratic primary process appears to support the emerging "cultural" model of electioneering. That is, the political importance of personal exposure has continued to increase even as the candidates' ability to tell a compelling story about themselves has become an irreducible necessity. Indeed, the growing importance of these factors points toward a common point on the horizon: American politics may be undergoing a process that at least one observer has termed "feminization."

During the primary season, candidates with a good story to tell did much better than candidates without one. Conversely, candidates who sought to limit their personal exposure paid for it. In the meantime, Democratic voters simply ignored gatekeeper judgments about who was leading and who was lagging, continually reshaping the race from one primary to the next. Three candidacies stand out as illustrations of the cultural political process: those of Howard Dean, John Edwards, and John Kerry.

Dean's Disintegration

Vermont's former governor is in some ways the most interesting, if only because his effort was the most resounding flop. Dean's campaign pioneered the use of the Internet to build an organization and raise funds, and it appeared to be so successful at this innovative strategy that some observers thought that he would, in effect, hijack the Democratic Party "brand." (Maybe the Democratic National Committee thought so too. The party apparatus seemed hostile to Dean's run, unconcerned with attacks on him, and anxious for him to quit the race.) Yet despite the fact that the gatekeeper press had anointed him the front-runner, Dean failed to win a single primary other than Vermont's in March, long after his candidacy was finished.

He based his campaign almost entirely on policy issues, especially his opposition to the Iraq war, and he spoke frequently of bringing fundamental change to Washington power politics. This strategy appealed to a core group of issue-oriented Dean enthusiasts, but it failed with everyone else.

Interestingly, Dean protected, to a nearly unprecedented degree, his and his family's privacy from media inquiry. As a result, there was very little in the way of character construction, and even less in the way of biographical storytelling, in his campaign; Dean's "backstage" story was off limits entirely. Except for his passion about foreign policy, health care, and "special interests," voters were offered little information about him and nothing personal at all.

In the end, however, a Dean "character" emerged anyway. Candidates cannot insulate themselves from political coverage that has become nearly ubiquitous. A TV camera is rolling virtually everywhere, and on those occasions when it's not, there's a blogger, a laptop, and a digital camera nearby. Dean's mediated "character"—especially footage in which he rudely ordered a hostile elderly voter in Iowa to sit down and shut up—apparently struck many people as intemperate, arrogant, and abrasive. (Also in Iowa, Dean engaged in an exchange of negative ads with the Dick Gephardt campaign, a media war that has repeatedly and plausibly been blamed for undermining the appeal of both candidates.)

Dean's efforts to address his persona problems came too late. In the course of the New Hampshire campaign, where he attempted to make adjustments in the wake of his Hawkeye State disaster, Dean fed his wife (who had otherwise been invisible) into the maw of a Diane Sawyer interview, identified himself as a "hockey dad," and, though he was among the more cerebral candidates in years, analyzed himself as too often "leading with his heart." (His wife allowed that he "is a good dancer.") Apparently concerned that his candidacy had developed minimal appeal to female voters, Dean began making New Hampshire appearances in the company of his mother. But it's far more difficult to build a positive "backstage" persona when voters already have assembled a negative one, and Dean's attempt came to nothing.

Obviously, the major echo left behind by the Dean campaign is the manic Iowa Scream that followed his deflating third-place finish in that state's 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, already had faded as a candidate before he started screaming. The moral? If you don't shape your own persona and tell your own story, these don't become nonfactors. Rather, character and narrative become factors over which the campaign has surrendered control.

Of course, Dean did offer a series of high-profile endorsements, including one from Al Gore. All that accomplished, however, was to demonstrate that in an age of political intimacy, personal endorsements don't mean anything. Dean's was a campaign that understood one technological revolution—the Internet and its organizational opportunities—extremely well, but ignored the demands of the remainder of the technological environment.

Edwards the Empath

The case of North Carolina Sen. John Edwards represents the flip side of Dean's failed campaign. Edwards' early candidacy was largely ignored by the mainstream press, yet he was able to connect with voters and establish his political credibility directly. How? It wasn't on the basis of his political credentials; Edwards entered the race as a retiring first-term senator without much of a record to brag about. It wasn't his effective organization either; Edwards didn't have much organization at all. Nor was it his history of leadership; Edwards made no such claim. What he had (along with money from his fellow trial lawyers) was a remarkable talent for storytelling.

The central pillar of Edwards' campaign was The Speech. We live, Edwards told audiences in every state, in Two Americas, one of them with good schools, good health care, etc.; the other without. The first America, the one where all the institutions work, exists for the benefit of the wealthy and privileged; the other America, where nothing works as well as it should, is for "everybody else." Furthermore, Edwards identified himself throughout the speech with "everybody else," focusing on his roots in "a rural mill town" in South Carolina where honest, simple people worked hard but eventually lost their jobs to impersonal globalization. Who can fix this broken country? According to his speech, Edwards can't do it alone, but all of us working together can "lift up" America.

It was a simple populist message, flavored with phrases borrowed from the rural Southern church and built on a well-worn political premise. (Benjamin Disraeli had used the trope of "two Britains" in the 19th century.) Yet the power of the speech is demonstrable: Edwards succeeded in melding a social and economic vision with an autobiographical story and, drawing on his experience as a jury-swaying trial lawyer, used his message to communicate empathy with his listeners. The speech was a startling performance in a post-rhetorical age; by all accounts it deeply impressed voters and even cynical political journalists, who never wrote a negative story about him. It catapulted Edwards into the role of major contender, despite his obvious lack of credentials for the office he sought, and it helped him survive the loss of all but one of the first 20 party primaries and caucuses.

Edwards' success in keeping his campaign going is evidence of the rise of a new political type made possible in a context of media intimacy. A variety of rhetorical and behavioral styles have dominated the presidency's two centuries. William Jennings Bryan and Jimmy Carter offered an essentially religious model; William McKinley and Calvin Coolidge adopted the public attitude of the taciturn businessman; Woodrow Wilson and Adlai Stevenson were professorial. A fading type, historically speaking, has been the military leader; a rising type, especially within the Democratic Party, has been the policy wonk.

Edwards represents a type that has emerged only recently: the Empath, a candidate who can identify not just with voters' interests but with their emotions. The original political Empath was, of course, Bill Clinton, whose claims to feeling the nation's pain became a source of parody. The power of the type, however, can be measured by its effect on a decade of American political competition, including the first campaign of George W. Bush. In the 2000 campaign, even a Republican like Bush attempted to apply the rising trope of empathy by building a campaign on sustained claims to "compassion" and by making the welfare of children (another Clinton specialty) a cornerstone of his promised policy initiatives.

Men of Feeling

This political pattern, involving empathy and a continuous policy reference to children, has led Carnes Lord of the Naval War College to speculate about the ongoing "feminization" of American politics. In The Modern Prince: What Leaders Need to Know Now, Lord argues that the foundations of the traditional leadership role have shifted, especially in nations that are dominated by a large, self-confident, and prosperous middle class. Would-be leaders of such societies can no longer draw on old-fashioned social hierarchies to justify their roles, and it is increasingly difficult to use war leadership as a model.

Lord is right. For much of the 20th century, would-be presidents sought to communicate the resolution they would bring to conflicts, both hot and cold, against a series of military and ideological rivals. Resolution, however, has given way to "compassion," even in the first Democratic presidential primary season since the September 11 attacks.

"Feminization," by the way, is a known cultural phenomenon involving a public shift in sensibility and the acceptable display of emotion. (Although feminization is sometimes used negatively or with misogynist overtones, in this case the term is strictly descriptive.) Great Britain experienced "feminization" in the 18th century, primarily through the influence of popular literature; it led to the appearance of the empathetic (and often lachrymose) Man of Feeling. The United States was to go through a similar cultural experience in the mid-19th century, also under the influence of (mostly) female writers and novelists. The phenomenon had important social and political consequences in both societies; it was part of the shift in outlook on the part of wealthier and more powerful classes toward the poor, women, slaves, and a variety of outgroups, and helped enable an era of expanding rights and socially corrective legislation. It's interesting that the transformation of presidential candidates into Men of Feeling has waited until so recently, but it is further evidence that politics have absorbed a cultural dynamic.

Kerry's War Story

The campaign of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry makes for an intriguing case study in cultural electioneering, because despite his manifest lack of talent for the form Kerry did well in one primary after another. Kerry is an old-fashioned senatorial blowhard, with a tendency to "orate." At the start of his initially unpromising campaign, he was quoting Alexis de Tocqueville to guys in bars. Moreover, Kerry was tangled in his own Senate record. He spent his campaign harshly criticizing a series of bills and resolutions—from NAFTA to the Iraq war to No Child Left Behind—that he had supported with his votes. Kerry's efforts to explain his past support for legislation he now opposed often left him sounding politically incoherent.

An incoherent blowhard is not an exciting candidate, yet Kerry managed to get a bandwagon going. How? Primary voters repeatedly explained their support for Kerry by saying he was their most "electable" option. It was a curiously detached calculation that was, arguably, a fundamentally cultural decision because it involved a judgment less of the candidate than of the country at large. That unenthusiastic judgment has at least one notable implication: It's in large measure about Kerry being part of the political establishment. Thus, despite all the usual anti-Washington campaign rhetoric, Kerry's persona was deemed "electable" because it was deemed presidential, an entirely "Washington" dimension. Democratic political mythology notwithstanding, the fact that Kerry has long been a significant Washington figure was one of his most saleable aspects.

Kerry did bring important cultural tools to his race, however, including a family that interested people—his wife Teresa Heinz Kerry actually did interviews—and most of all an especially powerful autobiography. That story centered on Vietnam, where Kerry served with distinction and was thrice wounded. But the most politically decisive aspect of his Vietnam story is that he had other people telling it. The effect of fellow vet Jim Rassman, who in a series of appearances credited Kerry with saving his life under fire, was incalculable in helping establish a courageous Kerry "character" for voters to perceive.

Kerry is actually a controversial figure among Vietnam veterans, some of whom remain bitter about his 1970s accusations of widespread American war crimes and atrocities. That, however, never became a primary issue. On the contrary, Kerry surrounded himself with a "band of brothers"—vets who supported his candidacy—and successfully encouraged the spread of his positive military persona. Indeed, Kerry leveraged that military persona to drag George W. Bush into an early political exchange involving comparative autobiography. Thanks to remarks by Terry McAuliffe, who first drew the public comparison between Kerry's and Bush's records, the details of Bush's Air National Guard service of 30 years ago actually became a news theme, one that forced the White House to release documentation. Because this exchange pitted Kerry against the president, it lent stature to the senator's candidacy.

In short, Kerry appears to have benefited from a culture of political intimacy despite himself. His military record, which would have been of far less value in the 1990s than it was after 9/11, gave him a personal narrative sufficiently powerful to overcome his stylistic and rhetorical weaknesses. (In any event, his later campaign rhetoric was much sharper after he borrowed a more confrontational tone from the faltering Dean campaign and a more empathetic tone from Edwards.) Best of all, Kerry benefited from an increasingly independent party electorate, which paid no attention to mainstream punditry and cast Kerry's persona in a front-runner role.

After the Iowa caucuses, one veteran political reporter evoked the work of Theodore White, whose book-length insider accounts of presidential campaigns throughout the 1960s established an entire genre of "Making of the President" political journalism. "The higher the political office," White believed, "the more important the candidate." That is, people require a sense of character, of who is seeking their vote. Candidacies, such as Howard Dean's, that fail to address that requirement are increasingly likely to fail.

Evoking Theodore White is particularly apt these days. In White's era, voters interested in the backstage campaign story had to wait for accounts by White or one of his many imitators. No longer. White's insider genre is nearly dead, and not by accident. Much of the old political "backstage" has become part of the campaign. We're all insiders now.