You could call this campaign the belittling of the presidency. With omniscient coverage in the media, with the spread of opinion-makers on the Internet, the political process may be more democratic than ever. But that’s only part of the story.
We’ve come a long way from the time when only our landed male gentry could vote. That worked well enough for the starter nation, but as the leaven worked in the baking of the dough, we moved from white bread to a loaf of enriched multigrained.
Despite dire predictions, the process of choosing a leader changed only a little when blacks and women got the vote. But as we cross the bridge into the new millennium we face ever more radical changes.
Instead of looking for the traditional leadership qualities in our candidates a man who frames goals and sets the directions we want to follow, we’re become instead fascinated with the candidate who reminds us mostly of ourselves.
Public dignity becomes less important than public empathy. Formal ceremonies are less important than spontaneity, however undignified. We once enjoyed watching a president playing with his children (think John F. Kennedy) or admiring his wife (think Jackie Kennedy) because it was such a contrast to how we had seen presidents in the past. Harry Truman, for all his rough-hewn public bluntness, revealed little of the private man that we saw in his letters to his daughter Margaret and to his beloved wife Bess.
Private remoteness at its worst could become paranoia, as with Richard Nixon. By contrast, Ronald Reagan gave privacy a sunny personality. He revealed nothing of his personal emotions (his hand picked biographer couldn’t find them, and resorted to making up a fictional role for himself in Mr. Reagan’s life), but the sunny Californian could masterfully diffuse a tense situation with a joke or a story, suggesting an informal conversational intimacy between himself and the rest of us.
Beginning with Bill Clinton, informal images preceded professional ones. He encouraged such encounters from the moment he and Hillary talked about troubles in their marriage on “60 Minutes.” When he played the sax on a late-night talk show, he was a natural. A student saw nothing wrong with asking him what kind of underwear he wore.
The current campaign is awash in appeals to soft pop cultural moments for the candidates that comes as much from the candidates as the media that cover them. Whether a candidate kisses his wife on the mouth, or kisses Oprah on her cheek, is strategy plotted with a dozen spinners at a planning session at 3 a.m. How he puffs out his chest and struts across the stage in a debate becomes as important as the issues he espouses maybe more important because it tells us how he wants us to see him.
We presume an intimacy, through a glass brightly.
“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,” writes Charles Paul Freund in Reason magazine. “Presidents, even when they assumed a ‘Jes Plain Folks appearance, nevertheless maintained a hierarchical relationship with the public.” Not any more.
While there are many reasons for the changes, Mr. Freund argues persuasively that the domination of pop images in presidential campaigns is as much the result of the changing world order as it is the growth of the new media. Since the end of the Cold War and with it any identifiable foreign threat, voters worry less about electing a president to be commander-in-chief than about electing a pal-in-chief.
Once the voters learned that Bill Clinton had evaded the Vietnam War draft and elected him president anyway, he was never measured against qualifications for military leadership. In fact, he was even excused for soiling the Oval Office because he wasn’t that important. Or as Mr. Freund put it, “Because he mattered less, Clinton could get away with more.” (You could ask Gary Hart.)
When Matt Drudge broke the Monica Lewinsky scandal, lots of journalists (who didn’t have the story) blamed the messenger and even the Internet, but Mr. Drudge was only reporting the facts before anyone else got to them. The belittling of the president came from inside the White House. The next man who inhabits the White House has to find a way to make the presidency matter more, not less.