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In the Serial of America, President Is the Star

Neal Gabler is the author of "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood" and "Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality."

According to a recent article in the New York Times Magazine, back in the late 1980s, Lee Atwater, George Bush’s campaign manager, hired a French medical anthropologist named Clotaire Rapaille to suss out what American voters wanted from their president. Rather than rely on polls or focus groups, Rapaille held what amounted to therapy sessions with groups of voters in which they were urged to delve into their unconscious for primal associations with the presidency. What he discovered is that Americans see their president as a kind of “movie character” whose primary function is to provide “cheap entertainment” for the country.

After two years of Monica S. Lewinsky, this may hardly be news. Americans have regarded their presidents as paternal (George Washington and Dwight D. Eisenhower), as avuncular (James A. Garfield, William McKinley and Warren G. Harding), as professorial (Woodrow Wilson), as combative (Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman), as efficient (Herbert C. Hoover and Jimmy Carter). The film director and writer Andrew Bergman even described Ronald Reagan as the national host. But the idea that the office of the presidency would become a provender of entertainment, the idea that one of the president’s key functions would be to provide the public with a few voyeuristic thrills, is a relatively new phenomenon--one the founding fathers certainly did not foresee.

Of course, in viewing the presidency as a show, Rapaille’s respondents were demonstrating their cynicism. Americans have felt so hoodwinked by politicians, by the daily waffling, pandering, tucking and filling, that they have chosen to assert their superiority over the entire political process by pretending it is a sham, a show, a farce. They won’t be fooled again. Describing the president as an entertainer is a powerful way to express this disillusionment, even if they don’t fully believe it.

But that said, calling the president our “entertainer-in-chief,” as Kurt Andersen wrote, is more than just sour grapes over a system gone wrong. It is, for better or worse, a fairly accurate assessment of the modern presidency--far more accurate now, after President Bill Clinton, than when Rapaille conducted his inquiry.

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In truth, the presidency began edging into entertainment virtually at its inception, when it began deploying the techniques of entertainment to win office and sell policy. Being able to orate well, having a dynamic appearance, bearing a dramatic personal story, whether it was heroism on the battlefield or triumph over childhood adversity, were as useful to presidential aspirants as to more conventional entertainers; and these became even more necessary as the media became more ubiquitous and their scrutiny more intense. It was hard not to think of Franklin D. Roosevelt as part entertainer when his mastery of the radio was so critical in building public support. Fifty years later, the meaning of Reagan’s election, a metaphor we now take for granted, is that a professional performer had just the right training and talent for the office--a fact Reagan frequently acknowledged.

But one suspects that Rapaille’s group had something else in mind than this. It isn’t that the presidency incorporates performance. It is that the presidency itself has been transformed into a long-running soap opera that the media believe the public want to follow. Indeed, this transformation of the presidency into a narrative or series of narratives may be the single most important change in political reportage in the last century.

Again, political conflict is obviously not new, and the media always enjoyed a good political tussle--be it Teddy Roosevelt excoriating his handpicked successor, William Howard Taft, or Franklin Roosevelt trying to pack the Supreme Court. But these were still essentially political stories.

As the competition for public attention grew stiffer, the political media became both more sophisticated and more intrusive, seeking stories likely to have popular appeal and increasingly dropping those that didn’t. Political reporters discovered the presidency could be every bit as much a provender of personal stories as Hollywood, and that these stories would have far higher entertainment value than the policy debates that had constituted the bulk of traditional political coverage. In effect, by changing the purview of political reporting from the public to the personal, the political media wound up changing the very nature of the presidency itself.

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Though old-fashioned political correspondents disdained personal coverage, the new political journalists adduced a number of justifications for the more personal narrative-mongering. They said candidates for the presidency and presidents had invited personal inspection by exploiting their families and personal histories for gain. They said private behavior was relevant to governance. They said the public had a right to know everything about a public figure.

What the political journalists didn’t want to admit is that personal stories, especially those about scandal, made for great entertainment, whether they were relevant or not. Converting the presidency into a soap opera empowered the political media by allowing them to compete in the larger cultural marketplace.

Where political correspondents were once dull talking heads relegated to Sunday-morning television, now they were star pundits, snapping off one-liners on the endless cable shows or the Internet. This would not have happened if the presidency had remained a locus of public policy rather than personal narrative.

Still, the media couldn’t have pulled off this trick if the public didn’t cooperate. The public has, in fact, developed new expectations of the presidency in an age of endless entertainment. When FDR was president, gossip columnists kept Americans apprised of his children’s romances, but these were hardly a national obsession. Rather, they were minor diversions. And as for Roosevelt’s own indiscretions, even if one knew, the information wasn’t likely to be published.

Today, Americans are less decorous and discreet. Our appetites whetted by continual gossip about movie stars, we have gotten a taste of political soap opera, and we like it. As a consequence, the media have been emboldened to out virtually everything, and these juicy morsels become the political coverage, not sidelights to it. Just think of how much less space and time the media devoted to Social Security policy, arms control, China trade and campaign reform, to name just a few, than to Lewinsky or the Clintons’ marriage and you will see what I mean.

Rapaille postulated that Americans might actually choose their presidents on the basis of their potential entertainment value--who is most likely to put on a good show?--and he laments that neither Texas Gov. George W. Bush nor Vice President Al Gore seem to promise much in the way of voyeuristic thrills. One might pooh-pooh this theory, but there was certainly an element of it in the proposed presidential candidacies of Donald Trump and Warren Beatty. Imagine the narratives those presidencies might have generated!

One can understand why Americans, having gotten their bread, now want their circuses. Even so, by traditional politics, the president would provide the circus with soothing policy pronouncements, as Reagan did, or with a virtual war, as George Bush did, or with personal grace, as John F. Kennedy did. Now, by the new politics of entertainment, the presidency has become the circus, the media are the ringmasters and we all sit in the bleachers clapping, stamping and cheering for the show to go on. *


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