Monday, January 30, 2006

Image-Making and the Crap Shoot of Democracy

For the responsible voter in a democracy, the challenge is to take measure of the people who seek our votes knowing that it's only long after the pols have stopped electioneering that we'll really begin to know them.

Political image-making is often derided and sometimes rightly so. But it is nonetheless an essential element for those who would persuade, lead, or govern. Just as the apostle Paul was willing to be "all things to all people" in order to reach them with his message about Christ, campaigning and governing politicians must be able to convince us that they are well-suited--even uniquely-suited--to address the needs of the times.

In his State of the Union message, President Bush, will once more engage in such image-making.

It's an old art. Back when the American Revolution was going badly, a huge contingent of the soldiers in George Washington's army were coming to the end of their enlistment periods. If they left, the war would be lost. If they stayed, the army could continue to fight its war of attrition against the most powerful empire on the planet.

Washington assembled soldiers and officers to incite them to stay with him. As part of his presentation that day, he wanted to include reading a letter from the Continental Congress. As he prepared to do so, he fumbled for his glasses. You see, gentlemen, he told them as he unfolded the letter, I have nearly gone blind in the service of my country.

That wasn't really true. Washington had been using glasses for some time. But this little bit of image-making did represent a deeper truth about Washington, one that all his army knew well: He had sacrificed his safety, his property, his honor, his life, and the well-being of his wife and family in the service of America's fight for freedom. The assembled soldiers were reduced to tears and Washington got his enlistments.

No recent American President was a better image-maker than Ronald Reagan. Asked once what he brought to the presidency that none of his predecessors had before, the former actor said that he knew what he looked like from every camera angle. And another time, in response to someone who wanted to know how an actor could possibly be president, Reagan said he couldn't understand how anybody who wasn't an actor could do the job.

Many who looked at Reagan and his presidency while he was living wrote him off as a well-meaning, but dangerous boob. They were always underestimating him. Reagan, like Franklin Roosevelt, his political, if not his philosophical hero, shared several things in common with him: They effused optimism. They affected an attitude of amiability. They were ambitious. They let others do their dirty work. And they never, ever let anybody really know who they were. They used their images to govern and by most accounts, did so effectively. But just as we've been able to take an accurate measure only recently, it will be some time before we really have a clear fix on Reagan.

Sometimes, knowing my interest in history, young people will ask me who I think our greatest presidents have been. They're surprised that I never list the chief executives who have served within the past thirty years or so. "Is it because our leaders have gotten worse?" they'll ask. "No, it's just that we don't know enough about these people yet to form fair judgments."

I'm grateful to the historians and biographers dedicated to unlocking these mysteries, though. There's a ton to be learned about America and about leadership from the biographies of past presidents. But the biographer of people like Washington, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Reagan, who assiduously developed images and left themselves somewhat inaccessible in order to free themselves to truly function as leaders, has a huge task.

Richard Reeves, who in the past has written about John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, has a new book out on Reagan. It was reviewed in yesterday's New York Times. The book seems not to have plowed any new ground. But I was interested in this paragraph in the review:
Reeves argues that Reagan was a master of both imagination and delegation. He stuck firmly to a small number of clear goals - reducing the size of government, restoring America's power and pride, and facing down Communism - and then delegated implementation to the "fellas." He did not so much do things as persuade others to do them for him. But his preference for delegation should not be confused with passivity. He insisted on using the phrase "tear down this wall" against the advice of his underlings, for example. The arms control deals that crowned his administration would have been impossible without his mixture of sci-fi fantasy and idealism. A Russian note taker who watched him carefully at two summit meetings likened him to an aged lion. If the prey was 10 feet away, he couldn't be bothered to move; but when it wandered to within 8 feet, he suddenly came to life - and Reagan the negotiator dominated the room.
Few who dismissed Reagan as a disengaged boob would recognize that portrait of him and none who voted in the elections of 1980 and 1984 had access to it. But the American people, in part because the Democrats didn't seem to offer the country an alternative vision that interested them, but mostly because of the image of Reagan's "morning in America" optimism, voted for the "aged lion" anyway.

Democracy is a bit of a crap shoot. The responsible voter must take proper account of the image and of what the truth seems to be whenever they go into a polling place. And, I think, they must pray. Since 1788, it seems that Americans have usually gotten it right when electing their leaders. May we always be so fortunate.

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