As Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and The Onion regularly demonstrate, sometimes you have to get silly to get to the truth of American politics. The guys writing their material are pros, but sometimes amateur cut-ups can do just as well.
You are looking at a fun couple enjoying themselves in a replica of the Oval Office at CivicFest, “a vibrant civic festival celebrating Minnesota and American history, democracy, and the U.S. Presidency.” The event was held in Minneapolis during the Republican National Convention; in this case, it provided the locale for a delegate party. And these two do know how to party.
I’d kill to know what she’s whispering in his ear, but that’s beside the point. This photo inadvertently captures the history of the American presidency during the last ten years. Start with Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Might have been just like that. Now fast forward to John McCain and Sarah Palin. . . . Unfair? Sure, and yet there certainly is an erotic undercurrent to the current billing that leads directly to fantasy shots like this one. And in between: the frat boy, George Bush. Laura doesn’t even need to be in the picture for the rest to ring true. He’s been playing, and playing at being president, for seven years. In fact, Bush always looks most comfortable when he’s goofing around at some ceremonial gig. He probably can be a lot of fun; he just needs to be in another house.
This photo may also be prophetic. The basic idea of the CivicFest replica is that ordinary citizens can put themselves virtually into the center of the U.S. government. That, of course, is not too far from the idea of democratic representation: the people elect an official to represent their interests while providing for the general welfare. What has happened, however, is that this principle of representation has become entangled with a politics of personal identification. People are encouraged to vote for those who seem just like them: ordinary people, you know, the kind who work hard but don’t take politics too seriously. Frat boys and so-called “mavericks” seem to fit the bill, never mind that most of us are not rich and have not spent the last two decades in Congress. And don’t get me started on beauty queens.
The couple in the photo are just having a good time. More power to them. One of the secrets to the success of American politics is that political parties can make politics fun. God help us if it becomes nothing but solemn debates. But I keep coming back to this picture. It gets truer still: a stage set bedecked with the symbols of American government, yet in fact the party in power has been playing, not just with some aide, but with the integrity of our most basic institutions and the lives of our military personnel. And if American voters vote to put someone just like them into the picture, it will get worse yet.
One can’t help but feel wistful about what might have been. Even the dippy CivicFest has some sense of direction. Their blurb for the replica says, “Experience the White House Oval Office and sit behind the president’s desk, sign a bill into law and have a souvenir photo.” Ordinary people will be there for the photo, but they are given the benefit of the doubt regarding their fantasies of power. “Sign a bill into law”–what a thought. Maybe even a good bill, one that would serve the people. It could happen, you know, if only enough people would, for one day of the year, get serious.
Photograph by Todd Heisler/New York Times.