Politics as Theater

“How will they govern if elected?” That was the question with which I ended my last column published on February 8, 2008. Since that date the “they” has been reduced by one. Mitt Romney has withdrawn. So either, Senator John McCain, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton or Senator Barrack Obama will be the next President of the United States.

            Which one of these candidates is the most likely to effectively exercise political power and discretion, ie. “To hear before anyone else the distant hoof beats of the horse of history?” as Bismarck famously remarked.
            Former Harvard Professor, contributing writer for the New York Times, now a Member of Canada’s Parliament and Deputy Leader of Canada’s Liberal Party, Michael Ignatieff assesses the overall probability that any of these candidates will do that as at best unlikely. In doing so, he recounts a British Prime Minister’s comment when asked what made his job so difficult. “Events, dear boy,” the Prime Minister instantly replied.
“Few of us hear the horses coming,” says Ignatieff. The few that do recognize as did Machiavelli, that political judgment, to be effective must follow principles more ruthless than those acceptable in ordinary life. Machiavelli wrote that “it is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity.”
            As Professor Ignatieff points out, Roosevelt and Churchill knew how to do wrong, yet they did not demand to be judged by different ethical standards than their fellow citizens did. They accepted that democratic leaders cannot make up their own moral rules and these strictures apply both at home and abroad.
            If George W. Bush and his “team” had “heard the horses coming” and not demanded to be judged by different legal and ethical standards than their fellow citizens of the United States and the world, then would there have been the issues raised over Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib or anywhere else? The answer is probably not!
               In some areas however, political and personal judgments are very different. Ignatieff illustrates several of these areas. In private life you take attacks personally. You would be considered cold and unfeeling if you didn’t. In politics, the conventional wisdom is that if you take attacks personally, you display vulnerability. Politicians therefore try to appear invulnerable without appearing inhumane.
            The conventional wisdom in politics as Ignatieff points out is that, “Nothing is personal in politics because politics is theater.”   This is exhibited over and over again in legislatures where Representatives and Senators insult one an other in the chamber and then retreat for a drink at a bar or a restaurant afterward. This institutionalized hypocrisy is generally not available in private life. There, we mean what we say, say what we mean and we plan revenge for being insulted.
We do however in private life put less emphasis on words than on what we mean by them. There is no such courtesy in politics.   In public life language is a weapon of war and is deployed in a way that engenders radical distrust of politicians. All that matters is what you said not what you meant. Everything said in politics is potentially open to be taken literally. Senator John McCain’s comment about “being in Iraq for a hundred years,” Bill Clinton’s comment about Barrack Obama’s politics on Iraq being a “fantasy” and his acknowledgment of Ronald Reagan’s transformative presidency, Hilary Clinton’s “racially insensitive” comment about the relationship between Martin Luther King and President Lyndon Johnson’s accomplishments in the field of civil rights.
There is starting to be an adverse reaction to “politics as theater.” This reaction has been noticed and is being monitored and even pandered to by all three presidential campaigns in the form of their scripted message of “Change.” This “Change” is defined differently by each candidate because they are appealing to different constituencies. The Change desired by those constituencies is different and in some respects conflicted. Politics is still theater in 2008. Campaigns are the warm-up for the final Act of Governance. As we are all learning, they do not help us measure a candidate’s ability to exercise good judgment. Campaigns and primaries test a candidates charm, stamina, money raising ability and rhetorical powers but not their leadership skills, judgment and coolness under fire. Those will be examined in my next column.

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