Political theater

I did not watch the speeches by Ann Romney or Michelle Obama at the conventions though I did see a few clips. Both speeches were highly praised by media commentators, the latter particularly so, as ‘touching the hearts’ of the audience and ‘humanizing’ their spouses by showing their virtues as husbands and fathers and as gosh-darned wonderful human beings.

I hate this stuff. I find that kind of personal touch unnecessary and cringe when people share these personal anecdotes that are supposed to show that the candidates are aw-shucks regular guys who iron their own shirts and wash the dishes, just like you and me. It always comes across as phony.

It is not that personal anecdotes are always out of place. But they should have some policy relevance. To share some personal health story as a means of illustrating a point about how the health care system treats people and why we need a better one is perfectly fine. To share it just to show that you too have suffered pain and know what it is like and therefore can empathize with others strikes me as phony.

Novelist Walter Kirn attended the Democratic convention and was one of the few media people who observed that political spouses have learned how to conjure up emotions in their voices at just the moment that the teleprompter cues the relevant words. In an interview with On the Media he said that when he watched Michelle Obama’s speech on the big jumbo screen in the arena, to him it was painfully obvious that what she was doing was giving a performance, simulating ‘speaking from the heart’.

Does anyone imagine that the speeches of Ann Romney and Michelle Obama were not carefully written and vetted and rehearsed? And yet we seem to want to be fed the illusion that they were spontaneous expressions of their genuine feelings.

Similarly take the anecdote that Mitt Romney gave about his parents during his acceptance speech at the Republican convention.

“Mom and Dad were married 64 years. And if you wondered what their secret was, you could have asked the local florist – because every day Dad gave Mom a rose, which he put on her bedside table. That’s how she found out what happened on the day my father died – she went looking for him because that morning, there was no rose.”

This immediately struck me as bogus. It was just too cute to be genuine. Besides, if true, it required a mechanical routine on the part of his father that bordered on the obsessive. Did he buy the rose each prior evening and hide it to give the next day? What if he got late from work or the florist was closed or out of roses? Did he have a secret stash of roses? He was a busy man. Did he have an aide buy the roses for him? What if he forgot on some days? Did his wife become alarmed that he was dead?

But apart from these niggling details, what was the point of telling us this story? To show what exactly? The portion of the speech in which it was embedded seemed to be designed to show that Mitt Romney lived an Ozzie and Harriet style life. And what exactly is that supposed to tell us about how he would act as president? I also idly wondered how many men would be annoyed by that story because it would show them up to be thoughtless unromantic dolts and cause their own partners to view them unfavorably by comparison.

I could be fairly criticized as not being a romantic and being way too cynical and that these types of stories are not meant to be analyzed so clinically. But it bothers me that things that are plainly manipulative are being accepted at face value.

Frankly I don’t care if Barack Obama tucks his children into bed each night or reads to them. It is undoubtedly important to his children and his wife that he does these things but why is it important to the nation? Why do we need to feel good about the president as a family man in order to feel good about him as a president? Is there any correlation between personal qualities and political actions?

After all, Barack Obama seems like he is a nice man. And yet he seems to have no compunction whatsoever about personally ordering the deaths of people without any due process, excusing the actions of torturers, and cracking down hard on people who expose wrongdoing in government. Bill Clinton oozes empathy whenever necessary. And yet when he was running for president in 1992, he went out of his way to personally oversee the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a mentally retarded man, to show how strongly he supported capital punishment and to establish his credentials as being tough on crime. It was a brutally cynical political calculation.

Oddly enough, the very things that media analysts criticize Obama’s speeches for, that they tend to be professorial and dispassionate and analytical, are the things I like about them. Bill Clinton’s success as a politician was that he could do those things while at the same time produce, right on cue, a catch in his voice or a tear in his eye, when the occasion demanded it. Obama does not seem to be that good an actor and does not try, for which small mercy I am grateful.


  1. smrnda says

    When a politician talks about their deep love and devotion to their family, it actually makes me think far less of them. I’m sure they love their families, but what I care about is whether or not, as elected officials, they will do what they can for the millions of people who are not members of their families. I’m sure Mitt Romney loves his family so much that he’s put hundreds if not thousands of people out of work so that his family can have more than it had before.

    My distaste is due to the way that issues are framed where any sort of social welfare program is seen as an assault on the family because it involves taking a person’s tax money and using it for a program that benefits all families instead of just one of them. I think this is a ridiculous viewpoint, but it’s unfortunate that Americans tend to think of the family and the State as two things that are necessarily in conflict. The more a politician brings up their love for their family, the more I think they believe this. Obama doesn’t believe it (I don’t think) but I wish he would be more open about the fact that the family can’t do its job on its own, and without State intervention in the economy, your average family would be crushed so that a few privileged families could wallow in opulence.

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