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Sep 25, 2009

Politics as Performance Art

Jay Leno once remarked that “Politics is just show business for ugly people.” He got that right: politics is a performance art. The media are rightly criticized for focusing too much on style during electoral campaigns, but they actually are on to something important. Political campaigning is an art of improvisation on stock repertoires, and the skills honed there can be put to use later in the practice of governing. A photo from the recent A.F.L.-C.I.O forum in Chicago provides a nice example of this political stagecraft:

labor-meeting-gestures.jpg

This image is a study in the relationship between convention and improvisation on the rubber chicken circuit. Pointing to someone in the crowd obviously is a stock gesture on the political stage. You’ve got to do it to appear active, attentive, and connected with the audience. It also communicates past experience with those present, and it even is a bit charismatic, as the leader dispenses the gift of his or her much coveted attention to an individual singled out of the crowd. Thus, the candidate not yet doing it in this photo looks a bit withdrawn, disconnected, or slow on the uptake. Note to Joe Biden: you don’t get elected by not following the script.

Despite their uniform behavior, the candidates also are improvising as they can to distinguish themselves from the others on stage. (Remember, there is no director to keep anyone from stealing the scene.) Christopher Dodd, on the right, looks poised, polished, and wholly scripted. He’s the newcomer to the presidential stage, and it shows. The other two are old troopers and much more interesting, perhaps surprisingly so. Hillary, who is portrayed by the media as highly controlled, looks very different here. She’s having a great time and really letting it show; you can feel the emotional energy that she is channeling. And then there is Kucinich, who supposedly is the loose canon of the bunch. Look closely: sure, he’s pointing towards someone in the room, but he’s looking directly into the camera. That’s what Hillary is supposed to be doing: acting as a hardened professional whose only relationship to real people is to use them as props while playing to the media. That rap may not fit Kucinich, but he clearly is a savvy actor.

So it is that anyone can say that “politicians are all alike.” They have to be to make it on stage. And yet they are not all alike as every performance is slightly different. And while the media feed us stock characterizations, they also show more than they tell. But you have to look to see it.

Photograph by Peter Wynn Thompson for the New York Times.


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Politics as Performance Art

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