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The theater of celebrity.

In the United States in the late Twentieth Century, gentlemen of great wealth or polite intellectual attainment--novelists and university presidents as well as candidates for political office--attend "media training sessions," meant to furnish them with the supreme gift of public image. The apprentice aristocrats learn to refrain from fidgeting in their chairs, to wear their hair at modish lengths, to walk gracefully through the aisles of the accounting department, to keep their fingers from drumming on the lectern, to speak forcefully, and, above all, to avoid raising their voices when exchanging civilities with the ladies and gentlemen of the press. These latter personages open and close the doors to the ballrooms of celebrity, and unless one knows how to conduct oneself in their august presence, even the richest of businessmen or the wisest of authors must vanish into the pits of anonymity and ridicule.

Two years ago I attended one of these lessons in court protocol administered to the chairman of a large insurance company encumbered with the embarrassment of indictment for fraud. The gentleman had been invited to an interview on network television, and he had reason to be anxious. His company hadn't been receiving the best press notices, and for the modest sum of $10,000 he had hired public-relations counsel for a one-day lesson in studio etiquette. The chairman arrived promptly at 9:00 A.M., uneasy and nondescript despite the expensive tailoring of what was obviously a new suit. He was accompanied by seven assistants: the vice-president in charge of political affairs, two secretaries, a speech writer, a statistician, a consultant, and a valet. About the same number of people represented the public-relations firm.

Everybody shook hands with everybody else, and the company arranged itself around a long and highly polished table. A producer named Bernie came briskly to the business at hand. He introduced a troupe of "communications specialists" who would play the part of the television journalists, and then, speaking to the chairman, he said: "What you have to bear in mind is the simplicity of the medium and the stupidity of the hosts. Never answer their questions. Never be seen to think."

The chairman nodded complacently, delighted to hear Bernie confirm his dearest prejudices. Bernie made a few more observations--about dictating the terms of the interview and keeping one's fingers out of one's nose--and everybody moved into an adjoining studio for the first performance. The chairman settled himself into a chair opposite the surrogate host, an aggressively affable young man named Mort, and waited confidently for the first question.

His self-assurance didn't last thirty seconds. Mort smiled a greasy smile and said: "Perhaps you can tell us, Mr. Chairman, why your company gouges people with the viciousness of a Mafia loan shark?"

The chairman's mouth opened and closed like the mouth of a netted fish. Mort accepted his silence as a concession of guilt and went unctuously on to the next question: "I can't say I blame you, Mr. Chairman, but maybe you can tell us why your company robbed its own stockholders of $500 million last month to prevent the merger with E.F. Hutton?"

By an obviously heroic effort, as if struggling with giant snakes, the chairman achieved the victory of speech. It wasn't coherent speech, of course, and none of it resembled the notes on the index cards in the chairman's coat pocket--wonderfully succinct little statements about his company's benevolent service to the American people. Gasping with rage, he managed to say, not very distinctly but distinctly enough to be heard on camera: "You're a dirty, lying son of a bitch."

Bernie stopped the camera. In a voice almost as breezy as Mort's, he said: "Yes, well, I can see we have a lot of work to do."

The rest of the day wasn't easy. Mort was sent away, replaced by a woman who wasn't quite so rude. The valet trimmed the chairman's hair; the speech-writer typed the prepared statement in capital letters; the secretary reminded the chairman that he was one of the richest men in the world. By six o'clock in the afternoon the chairman was capable of getting through five minutes in front of the camera without committing the theatrical equivalent of suicide. His retainers helped him out the door, mopping his forehead, steadying his shoulders, murmuring reassurance in his ears. Watching him depart, Bernie said; "Believe it or not, he was better than most."

And then, after the door had closed: "It's a wonderful world. Fifty years ago I could have been teaching debutantes to dance."

If the media succeed with their spectacles and grand simplifications, it is because their audiences define happiness as the state of being well and artfully deceived. People like to listen to stories, to believe what they are told, to imagine that the implacable forces of history speak to them with a human voice. Together with the expansion of a national-security state over the last thirty years, the society so enlarged and complicated its acquisition of knowledge--political, scientific, economic, technological--that the public has become desperate for easy and authoritative answers. Harassed by data of all denominations, surrounded by a din of images, people revert to a primitive exchange of signs. Given too much to read, they tend to read as little of it as possible. It is easier to watch Monday Night Football and to hope that at the next conference or cocktail party somebody will turn up with an authoritative bit of gossip descended from Kevin Costner or William F. Buckley.

Despite the prodigies of the new data bases and computer systems, we seem to know less than we did when we sealed letters with wax and waited eight months for a reply from London.

Fewer and fewer people find the time even to glance at the papers. Periodicals gather like unwelcome cousins in the hall; the memorandums, the books, the abstracts, the briefing papers collect in briefcases that people would rather not open. Even a middle-level executive at a middle-level brokerage firm receives 500 household advisories a week (not to mention the subscriptions to trade journals or the daily and financial press); dossiers of equivalent bulk circulate at every level of authority within the corridors of any American institution large enough to boast of its presence in the Twentieth Century.

Thus the sense of confusion and loss. What does any of it mean? Who has the time to read what he or she has to read? Where and how to find--at a price of seventy-five cents or less--not only violent sensations and high-minded sentiment but also baseball scores, moral instruction, accurate weather forecasts, and the truth? The more complicated or ambiguous the circumstances, the more desperately people fall back on prophetic certainty.

Our politics becomes synonymous with advertising--a procession of images notable for the strict separation of cause and effect--and the inanity of the American political debate follows from the reduction of the words to wands with which to perform the rituals of omnipotence. The less the people understand of what politicians do, the more urgent their desire to appoint politicians to the ranks of the immortals. In the absence of any discernible moral or intellectual difference between the Republican and Democratic parties, elections proceed by means of ideographs and holograms--John F. Kennedy as Prince Hal; Jimmy Carter as Christ the Redeemer; Ronald Reagan as John Wayne or Old King Cole; Bill Clinton as the down-home democrat.

The image of the President (or any other politician) corresponds to what the country wants to believe about itself, and as the occasion arises every two or four or six years, those among the Washington gentry who actually stand for public office hire a retinue of literate squires (speech writers, policy advisers, pollsters, et al.) who outfit them in an armor of slogans.

The candidates come and go within a burning arc of klieg lights, pursued by the inquisitions of the press, weighed in the daily balance of the public-opinion polls, their voting records and childhood memories sifted through the labyrinths of computer analysis. The sophistication of the technology has the paradoxical effect of reducing the campaign to a barbarous entertainment. The more that is known, the less that can be said. Never before in the history of the world have so many people had so much access to so much information about their prospective rulers, but the accumulated data apparently give them small comfort, and so they rely instead on what has become a trial of physical strength, as if they were hoping for a proof of divine or supernatural favor.

Medieval chroniclers tell of princesses who sent Christian knights in search of dragons, requiring them to recover bits and pieces of the True Cross and to wander for many days and nights in heathen forests. Toward the end of the Twentieth Century, in a country that prides itself on its faith in reason and the wonders of its science, candidates for the Presidency wander for months and years through the ballrooms of Holiday Inns, answering, in twenty words or less, questions that cannot be answered in 100,000 words, smiling steadfastly into the lens of the camera that never sleeps, and displaying, in the manner of surgeons and generals, not the least sign of fear or disgust.

President Clinton proved his worthiness in last year's election campaign less by what he said or didn't say than by his capacity to endure insult and humiliation. All the speeches, all the fine phrasing and rephrasing of domestic economic policy were as nothing compared with the doggedness with which he withstood the questions about his romance with Gennifer Flowers and his avoidance of the military draft.

The transformation of politics into soap opera makes nonsense of the sham distinctions between Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative. If authority is invested in persons instead of ideas or institutions, then the politicians stand on no platform other than the scaffolding of self-dramatization. The rule of love supplants the rule of law, and instead of addressing fellow citizens, the politicians who would be king seek to recruit fans.

The theater of celebrity favors the worship of power over the uses of freedom, and I remember the distinction being very clearly drawn on an evening in New York, at a reception for Michael Jackson at the American Museum of Natural History. To a gathering of celebrities as impressive in its bulk as the stuffed elephants and the polyurethane whale, the president of Columbia Records introduced Jackson as "the greatest artist of all time"--not the greatest recording artist of all time, not the greatest pop singer or dancer of all time, but, simply and unequivocally, the greatest artist of all time.

The hyperbole seemed excessive, and at first I thought that the gentleman from Columbia Records merely wished to say that Jackson was extremely rich. This form of politeness is so prevalent in New York and Los Angeles that if a performer in any venue earns an income that can be counted in eight figures, he or she becomes, as if by royal proclamation, an artist. But even the magnificence of Michael Jackson's fortune didn't adequately explain the phrase "the greatest artist of all time." Why not merely "a sublime artist" or "one of the greatest artists of all time"?

Eventually it occurred to me that the president of Columbia Records, like so many of his peers in both the weapons and the entertainment industries, identified art not with talent or inspiration, not even with skill or ingenuity, but with power. I thought of Adolf Hitler at Nuremberg in the 1930s, experimenting with the Twentieth Century forms of son et lumiere and presenting himself as the first of the modern rock stars.

He set the scenes of his speeches as artfully as the producers of music videos arrange the visual accompaniments for songs, and in Mein Kampf he observed that the object of all propaganda was the "encroachment upon man's freedom of will." To this end he recommended techniques likely to "whip up and excite ... the instinctive." The impresarios look for the same effect, and by art they mean, more often than not, the Dionysian burst of feeling that draws a crowd, burns the Reichstag, elects a President, or sells forty million copies of Thriller.

The belief in the transfiguring power of personality derives its modern and egalitarian bona fides from Jean Jacques Rousseau's romantic pastoral of man as a noble savage at play in the fields of the id, of man set free from laws and schools and institutions, free to set himself up as his own government, free to declare himself a god. Rousseau was acutely conscious of the subjugating power of fame, and in a spirit that would be well understood by the editors of People magazine, his writings constantly allude to his desire to complete other people's lives, to walk into a room and seize the instant and universal approbation of everyone present, to focus upon himself all eyes, all praise, all sexual feeling.

Precisely the same desire denominates the character of President Clinton. He is a man defined by his voracious appetite for more friends, more speeches, more food and drink, more hands to shake, more hugs. His eagerness to please--to complete other people's lives by presenting himself as the world's most obliging talk-show host--suggests the emptiness of a soul that knows itself only by the names of what it seizes and consumes.

So insatiable is the President's lust for center stage that on the night before the inauguration, during the gala presented in his honor at the Capital Centre, he couldn't prevent himself from mouthing the lyrics while Barbra Streisand sang "Evergreen." The television cameras drifted away from Streisand--as Clinton knew they must--and discovered the tearstained face of the new President devouring the words as if they were made of chocolate.

President Clinton's delight in the company of movie stars would have been well understood by President William Howard Taft, who learned the lesson of modern celebrity in the summer of 1911 when he found himself traveling on a train with Mary Pickford and Francis X. Bushman, the silent screen stars who were then the wonder of the age. When he saw how the actress was mobbed by eager crowds at the station, he summoned Bushman into his presence and confessed that he envied him the adoration of the public. "All the people love you," he said, "and I can't have the love of even half the people."

The pagan worship of rock singers or television anchorpersons, like the pagan worship of stones and trees, implies the joyous return to barbarism. Rousseau was talking about power, the power to do as one pleases, and his premise that every man remains free to declare himself a god encourages the adoration not only of political and theatrical celebrities but also of figures as otherwise unlike one another as Pat Robertson, Ross Perot, and John Gotti.

To the extent that they present an image of omnipotence and so relieve their followers of the burdens of anxiety and dread, they sustain the rank of minor deity. The sentiment is as primitive as it is antidemocratic. Just as the hope of civilization defines itself as an advance toward impersonality, toward an idea of justice that doesn't depend on the whim of a judge or the failure of the White House, so also democratic government discounts the question, Who is the best ruler? and asks instead, Which ruler can do the least harm?
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Title Annotation:press and politics
Author:Lapham, Lewis H.
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Column
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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