Every four years, it seems, we Americans must display infinite forbearance in the face of irrepressible foolishness. Transforming all serious meaning into manipulation and marketing, our presidential election process has now been reduced to an endless barrage of numbing cliches and empty witticisms. All this noise might be tolerable – perhaps even a conveniently humorous interlude – if the stakes were not so manifestly high. And right now, at an especially dangerous moment in our history, the stakes are nothing less than our physical survival as a nation.
The story is told of an admiring friend who tells a young mother, “My, that’s a beautiful baby you have there.” The mother replies, “Oh, that’s nothing – you should see his photograph!” In this strange colloquy lies the laughingly bitter truth of contemporary presidential politics: We Americans are presented not with authentic persons, but rather with contrived replications of genuine human beings – with professionally touched-up images that disguise a multitude of deep pathologies.
Ironically, we fully understand this demeaning substitution of image for reality – after all, politics is now little more than an extension of entertainment and commerce by other means – but we continue the dangerous charade nonetheless.
Everywhere fame is synthetic. It matters little whether a particular political personality has any intrinsic worth or promise. What matters is only that the public will be impressed by this figure because he or she is recognizable. It is a perverse tribute to the power of the image makers that even the most blatant nincompoop can readily be transformed into a serious person, indeed – even into a president or presidential candidate.
The celebrity politician draws huge audiences even though few expect to hear anything worthwhile. Even as the candidate’s spoken words seethe with vacant allusions and endless equivocations, the crowd nods approvingly or leaps with satisfaction. It is comforting enough for these audiences to bask in the warmth of someone “famous.” In the absurd theatre of American politics, the protagonists now play their part with great zeal and ambition, but “normally” without underlying capacity. As for the chorus, it has rehearsed its lines just as well, but utters them by rote. They are ritual incantations.
The historian Daniel J. Boorstin once wrote of the “celebrity,” of the person or product that is known for well-knownness. Offered as a thoughtful commodity, the object of celebrity triumphs via the pervasive alchemy of “public relations.” It matters not at all that a public figure may be without intellect or integrity. This fact is literally of no electoral consequence.
Once upon a time, many of our national heroes were created by achievement. Today, the celebrity politician is fashioned by a system that is refractory to all wisdom and that is openly sustained by empty chatter and half-knowledge. At a time when presidential incapability can clear the way to bio terror, “dirty bombs,” or even outright nuclear attack, the transformation of politics into amusement is much more than a bad joke.
In presidential politics, the sovereignty of the unqualified person could now yield an apocalyptic alloy of banality and power. If this should happen, we Americans could become vulnerable to unspeakable assaults. A similar fate could befall Israel, whose security and safety are now intimately intertwined with that of the United States.
We Americans live at an especially unstable moment. Confronted several years back by a then-vice-presidential candidate who unashamedly identified “major philosophical literature” with books by Richard Nixon, and who later boasted proudly about his qualifications with sober assurances that he would learn the members of the president’s Cabinet “by name,” we still refused to cry, “Enough!” Indeed, failing to recognize the 1988 Dan Quayle candidacy as the reductio ad absurdum of American politics, we went on later to still more embarrassing selections, including some recent presidents who are still inexplicably revered for their alleged “success.”
When will we learn to look behind the news, to acknowledge that our fragile political world has been cynically constructed upon ashes? Not until we learn to take ourselves seriously; until we begin to read and think with sincerity; until we stop amusing ourselves to death; until we seek rapport with genuine feeling and rediscover the dignified grace of real learning. And certainly not until we are reminded that authenticity in politics must always be preceded by an authentic love of G-d.
There can never be any direct salvation for us in politics. By virtue of our disfigured selection process, the American president, Democrat or Republican, can never really lead. This can change only after personal meaning in America is emphatically detached from marketing and after we recognize our captivity within the shallow world of empty appearances. Hopefully it can change before such time, when, as H.L. Mencken once observed, a much higher authority, “tired of the farce at last, obliterates the race with one great, final blast of fire, mustard gas and streptococci.”
No nation that is obsessed with irreverence and imposture in its private life can expect authenticity in politics. Before we can speak truth to power and prevent further public degradations of our national leadership we will have to recall correct meanings. Although the dictionary has not been our forte, we may yet tire of proceeding from one political forfeiture to the next, agreeing instead to make the souls of our citizens better.
The next presidential election is upon us. In all likelihood, neither candidate possesses the requisite strengths to guide a greatly imperiled nation to safety and prosperity. Impresarios of a meticulously vague discourse, both candidates will carry on the obligatory blitz of balloons and bravado.
For their part, the voters will graze more or less contentedly at the margins of power, pleased that one candidate or the other seems to “make sense,” and that this candidate, somehow, will “make a good president.” For their part, the voters will remain convinced that “well-knownness” is enough, that the photographic image is more impressive than the actual human subject, and that real meanings are unimportant. But if this is the true meaning of our American democracy, our American future will quickly turn grey and cold.
(c) Copyright The Jewish Press, 2004. All rights reserved.
LOUIS RENE BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is the author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and international law. He is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.