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Hierarchy is always based on some notion of exclusiveness, and as we
enact our hierarchical positions in society, we depend greatly on
hierarchical mystifications to impress those beneath us with our
exalted glory. (1)
                                                     Hugh Dalziel Duncan

The towns and cities of the country were once backstage areas of rehearsal for political candidates. By the time William Jennings Bryan delivered his powerful "Cross of Gold" speech at the 1896 Democratic National Convention, he had already practiced it many times in different parts of the country. (2) Nineteenth century America provided multiple political arenas in which national figures could polish up the form and substance of their main ideas. In the "privacy" of a non-electronic environment, politicians could also buttress their central platforms with slightly different promises to each section of the country without running into embarrassing contradictions.

Through radio and television, today's national politician faces a single audience. Wherever he speaks he addresses the whole country. Major speeches can be used only once and they therefore tend to be relatively coarse and undramatic. And because the politician addresses so many different kinds of people simultaneously he has great difficulty speaking in specifics. Many Americans are still hoping for the emergence of an old-style dynamic "great leader." Yet electronic media of communication are making it more and more difficult to find one. There is no lack of potential leaders but rather an overabundance of information about them. The great leader myth depends upon mystification and management of impression which electronic media are undermining. We see too much of our politicians and they are losing control over their performances. As a result, our political leaders are being stripped of their social metaphors and are being brought closer to the level of the common man.

In his dramaturgical analysis of social interaction, Erving Goffman has described the ways in which the performance of any social role involves highlighting certain personal characteristics while concealing others. (3) A restaurant waiter, for example, must often hold back his opinions on patrons' dinner conversations or table manners in order to perform his role properly. Similarly, a doctor must often suppress his sexual feelings and hide periods of confusion in order to maintain the confidence and respect of his patients. Both the waiter and the doctor emphasize other characteristics appropriate to the social situation through selected verbal and nonverbal behavior, specific types of dress and structured physical surroundings. The doctor must appear confident and professional, the waiter, efficient and respectful. "Failure to regulate the information acquired by the audience," notes Goffman, "involves possible disruption of the projected definition of the situation." (4)

Regardless of competence and desire, there is a limit to how long any person can play out an idealized conception of a social role. The individual must stop to satisfy bodily needs, he must have time to contemplate and analyze his behavior, and he must often play different roles before different "audiences." A man, for example, may be a father, a son, a husband, an old college roommate, and a boss. He may also be the President of the United States. Generally, he needs to emphasize different aspects of his personality in order to function effectively in each of these roles.

Goffman suggests, therefore, that the performance of a social role is indeed a performance: a selected display of behavior which cannot go on continuously and which must, to some extent, consciously or unconsciously, be planned and rehearsed.

In keeping with the metaphor of drama, Goffman has characterized behavior as falling into two broad categories--"front region" behavior and "back region" behavior. In "front regions" the individual is in the presence of a given audience and he plays out a relatively ideal notion of a social role. In "back regions" the individual and those who share his performance relax, discuss strategies, and analyze front region occurrences. When not in the presence of his clients, a doctor, for example, may joke with his nurse about the physical appearance of a patient, he may ask his nurse never to correct him within earshot of others, and he may call a colleague to get advice on treating an unusual set of symptoms.

Back region behavior may, on the surface, seem more "real" than front region behavior. Thus, when back region behavior is blatantly inconsistent with actions in front regions, the integrity of the performer may be questioned. Indeed, the discovery of contradictory back region behavior is often thought of as the method for unmasking the spy, the con man, and other dishonest performers. Yet Goffman suggests that the vast majority of "honest" performers--those who believe in their own roles--also exhibit contradictory behaviors in different regions. An individual may perceive himself as a dedicated, compassionate teacher even though he complains to his colleagues about work load, wonders aloud if he should not have been an advertising executive instead, and jokes about his occasional urge to throw student Johnny Smith into a vat of sulfuric acid.

Social truth then is an elusive and "region relative" concept. Behavior in front regions, even though it is "staged," in many ways represents an "objective" social reality. A performed role indicates the way in which the individual wishes to be seen and responded to in a given situation. To the extent that these expectations are met, roles become reality. The individual comes to define himself in relation to his performance and perceives others in relation to theirs. As Goffman puts it: "The world, in truth, is a wedding." (5)

Goffman's framework suggests that the performance of any social role depends on maintaining control over access to information by segregating regions. The need to shield audience members from back region information is especially acute in the performance of roles which rely heavily on mystification and on an aura of greatness--roles such as those performed by the political elite.

Yet electronic media of communication have been eroding barriers between back and front regions. The camera eye and the microphone ear have been probing into all aspects of the national politician's life and transmitting this information to 200 million Americans. By revealing to its audiences both traditionally front region and traditionally back region activities, television and radio have been presenting a new "middle region" view of public figures. We see a politician address a crowd of well-wishers then greet his wife and children "in private." We join a candidate as he speaks with his advisors, and we sit behind him as he watches conventions on television. By definition, the "private" behaviors now exposed are no longer true back region activities, but neither are they merely new front region performances. The eco-system of performance/rehearsal has been upset. Through electronic coverage, the politician's freedom to isolate himself from his audience is being limited. In the process, the politician is not only losing aspects of his privacy but also simultaneously weakening his ability to play many facets of traditional front region roles.

The television camera invades the politician's life like a spy in back regions. It watches him sweat, sees him grimace at his own ill-phrased remark or succumb to emotions. The camera destroys all distance between audience and performer. The speaker's platform once raised the politician up and away from the people--both literally and symbolically. The camera now brings him close for the people's inspection as it lowers him to their level. No wonder old style politicians who assume the grand postures of another era come off seeming like clowns or crooks and new style politicians have to pretend to be less than they would like to be (and thereby, Goffman would suggest, they actually become less). (6)

Some members of the press were always privy to a sort of "middle region" for politicians. Through consistent physical proximity many reporters would see politicians in a multiplicity of front region roles and a smattering of back region activities. Indeed the relationship between politicians and some journalists was, itself, a personal back region interaction. Yet, before electronic media, most of the news stories released were not accounts of a personal relationship or even of a "middle region." The politicians would distinguish for the press what was "on the record," what was "off the record," what should be paraphrased, and what must be attributed to "a government official." Thus, even when the journalists and the politicians were intimates, the news releases were usually impersonal social communication. Much of the politician's "personality" was well hidden from the public.

With electronic journalism, the politician loses a great deal of control over his message and his performance. When he asks that the television camera be turned off, the politician appears to have something to hide. When the television camera is on, the politician cannot maintain a distinction between on and off the record. He cannot separate his conversation with the press from his conversation with the public. The camera unthinkingly records the flash of anger and the shiver in the cold; it determinedly shadows our leaders as they trip over words or down stairs. Thus, while politicians try hard to structure the content of the media coverage, the form of the coverage, itself, is changing the nature of political image. (7)

Political interviews on television (and most talk shows) are personal rather than public encounters. The setting is usually an actual or mock living room. The interviewer and interviewee are often physically close. Since conversation tone, facial expression and choice of language are often determined by proximity, (8) the television interview naturally turns away from oratory and ideals and moves toward the chatty and personal. The television interview is a public eavesdropping on a private conversation. Even the knowledge of being overheard by millions does not change the fact that the words spoken and the behaviors exhibited are intimate. (9)

In her post-election interview with Mr. and Mrs. Carter in 1976, Barbara Walters asked personal questions concerning marriage, love letters, babies, mother-in-law conflicts, annoying habits, and single versus double beds in the White House. The Carters answered them all.

In 1973, the new Vice-President, Gerald Ford, and his family were interviewed in their home by Dick Cavett. We found out a little of the family's personal life and something about Gerald Ford's ignorance of rock groups. Even in the relatively formal Ford "farewell" interview with Barbara Walters, Mr. and Mrs. Ford spoke of mastectomies and loneliness in the White House. And for the first time on television the nation was shown "the First Family's private quarters." (10)

The effects of these interviews are simultaneously pleasing and disturbing. On the one hand, the questions seem oddly appropriate--what we might ask if we were having a private conversation with this public family. At the same time, there is something annoying about the answers because our leaders do not seem to be as great as we would like them to be. They are just people.

The President was not always so closely examined. Grover Cleveland had a serious medical operation while in the White House. The public never knew. (11) FDR was badly crippled but the public barely realized. Even Eisenhower (probably the last President to have control over his front and back regions) could linger near death in a hospital while the people saw a flurry of Presidential activity through the news releases of Press Secretary Hagerty. Closely-watched Kennedy, however, had to make a humorous symbol of his rocking chair. And by the time Lyndon Johnson had his operation, he felt obliged to smile broadly and reveal his scars to the nation.

Thus, while it is common to hear accusations of Presidential "management" of the news (especially in relation to Kennedy and Johnson), (12) the fact is that the news was always, of necessity, managed. The natural bias of the communication environment, however, was once to restrict information, and the politician had to act to get his message across. Indeed, before electronic communications, the major role of public relations and advertising, in general, was to get information to the public. The intent was to make certain aspects of people, ideas, and products visible. Other aspects were kept invisible through simple neglect. Now, however, public relations is becoming more and more an attempt to restrict information or counteract information which is already available (as in the oil company campaigns). This trend is accelerating as the public demands greater access to the files of government and business and as the computer industry makes compliance with these demands technically feasible.

Similarly, the politician finds that he has less control over information about himself and national affairs in general. He often finds himself commenting on information already available rather than making new statements to the press. (13)

Franklin Roosevelt used radio to reach Americans in their homes. The fact that many Americans lived through FDR's administration without being aware that he was largely confined to a wheelchair, (14) was a "natural" consequence of a specific communications environment where one did not yet have to manage one's image so much as choose it. While politicians could once select the channels of communication to the public, the media now select the politician. (15)

In what ways does this new political information environment affect the perceived status of our leaders? In what ways does it alter the politicians' perception of themselves?

Status is often defined in terms of access to territory. (16) Access to territory implies access to information. The relative status of two people can be measured not only by the amount of territory to which they each have access, but also by the relative degree to which they each have access to the other's territory and information. If I can come into your office without knocking but you have to make an appointment to see me, I have more status.

In societies where old people are still respected, eye behavior rules are often non-reciprocal. That is, an old person has the right to look at a younger person for a long time, even stare him up and down, while the younger person is expected to avert his eyes. This nonreciprocity of information associated with relative status is also reflected in seating arrangements. The head of a rectangular table is a high-status position because the person sitting there can watch all the people at the table without turning his head.

In this sense, we have reversed the status of our political leaders and ourselves. We now have more access to their personal lives than they do to ours. We have even begun to demand access to public officials' income tax files, lists of personal assets and travels.

The result is not that we get a more accurate picture of a political figure; we get instead a different political figure. As Goffman tells us, back region behavior is not really "truer" than front region action. In front regions, each person projects the role he wishes to play, an idealized notion of his self. (In Latin, the word persona not only means "human being," but also "mask" or "character performed.") For the purposes of social interaction, the front is more real. By not allowing politicians to maintain their fronts, we are both losing our confidence in them as leaders and undermining their own ability to perceive themselves as "great men." (17)

The interesting case of the televised convention suggests that politicians are generally unaware of the process through which their performances are being undermined. Conventions were once the party's back region get-togethers. Television coverage of conventions has turned them into "middle region" circuses. The delegates come off looking like drunken partygoers who will regret it all the next morning. One wonders why the party leaders do not either change the nature of the conventions or bar television coverage.

Reporters are always getting into fights at the conventions because of their intrusions. At the 1976 Republican convention, for example, Gerald Ford surprised Ronald Reagan at the end of the evening by asking him to come down to the rostrum. A reporter rushed to Reagan to ask his feelings, but the moment was unrehearsed and there was no statement or sentiment at hand. The reporter was quickly pushed aside by aides as Reagan advisors gathered in a tight circle about their candidate-a desperate attempt to regain a back region.

Reagan's moment of indecision reveals something about the temporal aspects of "middle region" politics. Before electronic communications, the politician had both the time and the control over access to himself to meet privately with advisors before he made a public (and seemingly personal) statement of policy. With coverage which is both instant and constant the political leader no longer has the opportunity to hide his need for decision time and conferring with others.

Goffman notes that behaviors which are necessary to the performance of a role must sometimes be sacrificed in order to give the appearance that a role is being performed properly. He notes, for example, that the umpire must often give up the moment of thought he needs to be sure of a decision in order to act instantly and thereby appear certain. This may be fine for umpires. But nobody likes an umpire and it is doubtful that one could be elected President. Thus, those politicians who now attempt to sound positive without taking the time to speak to their advisors often find themselves making statements of correction. The "middle region" alternative is to emphasize the deliberation process and one's "openness" to the ideas of others, thereby making a virtue out of advice.

The Watergate scandal and its aftermath illustrate well the character of "middle region" politics and the present difficulty in adjustment faced by politicians and the public. President Richard Nixon was a classic victim of "middle region" politics. He tried to be an old-style great leader in blissful ignorance of the communication environment in which he lived. What undid him, of course, were the blatant inconsistencies between his back and front region behaviors. Nixon was so sure of his control over access to back regions that he even taped his private conversations while making contradictory statements in public.

Nixon may have been fairly accurate in his claim that he did only what all other Presidents had done. Nevertheless, his mistake was in not gauging the new information environment. He was not alone in his blindness. Other victims of "middle region" politics include Wilbur Mills, Wayne Hays, and Earl Butz, all of whom suffered fatal political blows in a collision of front and back region behavior.

Is the public any wiser? The American people were shocked at Nixon's attempts to spy on the back regions of his opponents, yet the public only found out about his actions through vicarious prying into Nixon's own back region. After the release of the Nixon White House tape transcripts, the public demanded the release of the tapes themselves on long-playing records. This feeling of "right to know" and "honesty at all costs," however, has not been accompanied by a sophisticated notion of what will inevitably be found in the closets of great men. As Goffman suggests in relation to mystification, "often the real secret behind the mystery is that there really is no mystery." (18) If this were understood, Edmund Muskie might have been a viable Presidential candidate in 1976 even though he has been known to cry. The question remains: When does disclosure equal social truth?

By and large, Americans still await the hero who will gallantly rush from the wings onto the political stage and rescue America. Yet the proscenium arch is being expanded by electronic media and the wings are being opened to public view. Now visible backstage, the hero has less time to rehearse his rescue and build up his own confidence. Now visible, the hero has to begin running too soon. As a result, he comes to the rescue out of breath, barely trotting, with his sword undrawn, his armor unpolished. In the new communication environment the political actor faces a disquieting paradox: to audition for the role of traditional hero is to end up playing the fool. The situation demands a new political performance.

On November 2, 1976, Jimmy Carter was elected President of the United States. In maintaining the image and position of an "outsider," Carter had gained two distinct advantages over other leading contenders for the Presidency. As political stranger, he was not associated with the many front region/back region inconsistencies which had been whittling down the faith in the "old faithfuls" of both parties. Further, in approaching the national arena as an observer rather than as a participant, Carter had the opportunity to carefully evaluate the changing political atmosphere.

It is difficult to say whether Carter is aware, either intuitively or explicitly, of the character of "middle region" politics, yet his actions as a candidate and as a new President certainly seem well suited to the new political climate.

Carter has projected himself as an ideological descendant of Harry Truman--the one recent President who is now perceived as having been consistent in front and back regions. In his campaign, Carter tried extremely hard to say nothing which would contradict himself. His message all over the country was nearly the same. Of necessity, it was not much of a message, but it was relatively consistent and persistent.

Understanding the extent to which he would have to remain in the limelight, Carter chose an act which he himself could follow, again and again. Carter does not attempt to play the dynamic, forceful leader. He usually speaks quietly and slowly in a tone and manner suited to the sensitive microphone and close-up lens (and not that well suited to the crowds often addressed simultaneously). Carter makes tentative statements. He says, "We'll see" and "I think." He mentions his potential for weakness and mistakes (see, for example, his Inaugural Address, New York Times, January 21, 1977). He emphasizes his reliance on his advisors and his cabinet and he has stated his determination to give an unprecedented role of importance to the Vice President.

Jimmy (not James Earl) Carter projects a front which will not easily be contradicted by anything the media will reveal. (19) He claims for himself few uncommon virtues beyond a willingness to work hard. Carter has consciously avoided the "imperial" behavior of former presidents. He wears jeans and workboots in public and he eats comfortably from a barbecue grill in the rear of a Georgia gas station. He has eliminated limousine service for much of the White House staff. He insists upon carrying his own luggage and has even banned Hail to the Chief. (20) His daughter, Amy, has been enrolled in a public school. At his inauguration, Carter wore a regular business suit instead of the traditional morning coat and top hat. And in his first televised Presidential address to the nation, he wore a cardigan sweater and spoke "directly" from an easy chair without the customary formality of an intervening table or desk.

There are many indications, therefore, that Jimmy Carter has made a serious attempt to adjust his performance to match the requirements of the new political theatre. Carter's election to the Presidency may indeed signify the official end to the myth of the great autonomous national leader. Yet the close margin of his victory and the initial mixed response to his low-key Presidential style (21) indicate the public's lingering uneasiness with having only a "good man" as leader. What type of President will Jimmy Carter be? The public is waiting and watching closely; perhaps--even for Jimmy Carter--too closely.

Notes and References

(1.) Hugh Dalziel Duncan, Communication and Social Order, London: Oxford University Press, 1968, p. 255.

(2.) Morris Robert Werner, Bryan, New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1929, p, 56.

(3.) Erving Coffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Garden City: Anchor Books, 1959.

(4.) Ibid., p. 67.

(5.) Ibid., p. 36.

(6.) The history of modern media suggests a trend in the image of the political leader. From the portrait to the photograph to the movie to the video close-up, media have been providing a closer, more replicative, more immediate, and therefore less idealized image of the leader. Is it merely a coincidence that the first President to be extensively photographed--Abraham Lincoln--was also the first President whose physical shortcomings were regularly noted by both critics and admirers? (There are numerous anecdotes which describe Lincoln's replies to hecklers who commented on his ugliness; and see L. P. Brockett, The Life and Times of Abraham Lincoln, Philadelphia: Bradley & Co., 1865, for an example of a reverent biographer who nevertheless felt it necessary to note many times that Lincoln's form was "plain," "homely," "ungainly," "gaunt," and "bony.") Highly replicative media are not only demystifying leaders for their own time but for history as well. Less replicative media allowed for even greater idealization of men after they died, with a decrease in physical presence and an increase in mystification. If Lincoln were only passed down to us through his portraits, perhaps his homeliness would have faded further with time. In addition, we might well question the extent to which Lincoln's historical image as a dynamic speaker is preserved by the lack of recordings of his unusually high, thin voice. (For a description of Lincoln's voice and speaking style, see William E. Barton, Lincoln at Gettysburg, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1930, p. 80.)

(7.) The nature and extent of this loss of control becomes clearer when "back" and "front" regions are not viewed as mutually exclusive categories. In many instances the individual plays a front region role while simultaneously giving off covert back region cues to himself or his teammates (facial expressions, "code" remarks, fingers crossed behind the back, etc.). Thus the measure of control over access to back regions is not binary-access/no access-but infinitely variable. Any medium of communication can be analyzed in relation to those personal characteristics it transmits and those it restricts. Print, for example, conveys words but no intonations or facial gestures; radio sends intonations along with the text; television transmits the verbal, vocal, and non-verbal. In this sense, the trend from print to radio to television represents a shrinking shield for back region activities and an increase in the energy required to manage impressions. Further, Mehrabian's formula for message impact--7% verbal, 38% vocal, and 55% facial and postural--suggests that this trend in media development not only leads to revealing more, but to revealing more of more. (See Albert Mehrabian, Silent Messages, Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1971.)

(8.) Edward T. Hall, The Hidden Dimension, Garden City: Doubleday & Co., 1966.

(9.) Programs such as Meet the Press and Face the Nation are exceptions to this rule of intimacy. Yet producers have apparently found that in order to create a formal atmosphere in these shows they must employ tables and desks and establish increased distance between participants. Further, the "appropriateness" of these formal shows to the informal medium of television has been questioned. (See, for example, Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, New York: New American Library, 1964.)

(10.) The change in the image of political figures through television has been accompanied by a change in the image of many journalists. In print, the reporter's role behavior obscured many of the idiosyncrasies of the individual. In television, however, the journalist as a person becomes as visible as the news story. Thus television reporters have tended to move away from front region behavior toward "middle region" performances. The reporter has changed from an authority figure into an informed friend. He has moved from a formal front setting into the backstage "newsroom." And the newsman's front region reporting has changed into a "middle region" conversation--a mixture of news, jokes, and personal comments. In a 1976 television program featuring two Barbara Walters interviews (with the Carters and Barbra Streisand--is this combination relevant?), Walters also gave a television tour of her own home because, she said, she was accused of invading other people's living quarters without revealing her own.

(11.) Allan Nevins gives a fascinating account of President Grover Cleveland's serious and secret operation. (See Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage, New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1964, pp. 528-553.) The operation, which included removal of the entire upper left jaw, was performed on Commodore Benedict's yacht Oneida. The President and his doctors remained on board for five days. Nevins reports that it took nearly twenty-five years for the main details of the event to become public.

(12.) See, for example, William J. Small, Political Power and the Press, New York: W. W. Norton, 1972.

(13.) This trend seems to be traveling in a tightening spiral. Toward the end of his presidency, Gerald Ford, who had been subjected to some ridicule because of his clumsiness, called out the television camera crews in Colorado to watch him ski. He felt he had to "reply" to the previously transmitted information. Then he was asked to explain why he had called out the cameras. He replied, "I just wanted to show you I could, uh, get down a pretty steep incline without falling on my face." Conceivably, he could now be asked why he said that, and so on.

(14.) George N. Gordon, Persuasion: The Theory and Practice of Manipulative Communication, New York: Hastings House, 1971, p. 140n.

(15.) Samuel L. Becker has written an insightful analysis of the effects of broadcasting media on the relative power of Congress and the President. (See "Presidential Power: The Influence of Broadcasting," Quarterly Journal of Speech, 1961, 47, pp. 10-18.) Before electronic media, argues Becker, local representatives had closer contact with their constituencies than did the President, and Congress therefore had greater power. Through radio, however, the President, once a remote figure, could bypass local representatives and reach his national constituency directly. The President spoke with a single voice, Congress could not. Following this argument that access to the public is the most crucial factor, Becker concludes that radio and television broadcasting "will continue to be a force in the trend toward a larger and more effective presidential role" (p. 10). What Becker does not consider is the other side of the access coin: the public's access to the President. The analysis presented here suggests that increasing visibility can eventually lead to a drop in influence through decrease in mystification and loss of control over performance.

(16.) Albert Mehrabian, Silent Messages, Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1971.

(17.) Paul Levinson argues that media of communication are developing toward actual physical presence. (Anthropotropic Media: A Theory of the Evolution of Technological Communications Media Towards Replication of Pre-Technological or Human Communication Environments, Doctoral Dissertation, New York University, forthcoming.) If this is true, then the implications of this trend ought to be analyzed with respect to the way in which social situations and social identities are often defined by degree and type of physical access to other people. As Goffman and Duncan suggest, status is often based on exclusiveness. And as Hall has argued, there are significant spatial variables even when people are in each other's presence. Thus even when given the opportunity to be physically intimate, people have, in the past, apparently chosen to restrict access to each other for social reasons.

(18.) Goffman, Presentation of Self p. 70.

(19.) While there was some stir over the Carter interview in Playboy (November 1976, 63-86), the publication never seemed to annoy Carter much and it is even possible that it was a carefully planned strategy. In retrospect it is a model of consistency--the homogenization of back and front regions through the careful use of religion. Sure Carter has lust (doesn't everybody?), but he'd never fool around with Jesus watching)!

(20.) "Just Call Him Mister," Time, February 21, 1977, pp. 11-12.

(21.) Douglas E. Kneeland, "Carter's Style as President Has Drawn Mixed Reviews," New York Times, February 13, 1977, p. 26L.


(*) Joshua Meyrowitz is an Instructor in the Center for Instructional Development at Queens College, NY. This article is based on his doctoral research, in progress.
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Author:Meyrowitz, Joshua
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Jul 1, 2017

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