The story originated in Washington State’s Tri-City Herald, but it was the Miami Herald‘s reworked headline that caught my attention: “What you want to know: How Sarah Palin spent Thanksgiving.”
No, not especially. As a matter of fact, not at all. But presumably a lot of people do want to keep up with her social calendar and know every little detail about her life. Her new book has sold half a million copies already.
That’s scary — and not just because Palin happens to be the glamour girl of the moment. This whole idea of “politician as rock star” seems to constitute a relatively new cultural trend and, frankly, it’s a disturbing one.
When did it start, and how long did it take to reach the point at which the Barack Obama’s preferred beer, or whether or not Hillary Clinton can hold her whiskey, became matters of intense interest to the public?
Don’t get me wrong: There’s always been some level of fascination with the “private” lives of politicians, especially where the personal might reflect poorly on an aspirant’s ethics. From James G. Blaine’s campaign jingle about Grover Cleveland’s out-of-wedlock child (“Ma, Ma, where’s my pa? / Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!”) to Gary Hart’s monkey business aboard the Monkey Business, prurient pursuits have generally been linked to “the public interest.”
A modicum of showmanship is also to be expected in politics — the First Lady breaking a bottle of champagne over the bow of a new naval vessel, the mayor cutting ribbon at the site of a new building project, what have you.
But really, if you think about it, until recently politicians usually came off as a bunch of boring blokes engaged in a rather disreputable business. Nixon going to China to cut a deal with Mao, or Carter wearing a sweater and lecturing us on energy conservation. Nobody really gave a tinker’s damn whether the First Family spent a holiday weekend at Camp David or on Martha’s Vineyard. Excepting the occasional short-form “human interest” piece about who the President played golf with last Friday or which designer’s dress the First Lady wore to a state dinner, if it wasn’t related to policy, it really wasn’t political.
Was JFK and Jackie’s “Camelot” the beginning of the trend, or just an anomalous early indicator? When did politicians become … glamorous?
In a sense, they always have been. Remember, the real definition of “glamour” is an “artificial interest in, or association with, an object, through which it appears delusively magnified or glorified.”
Politicians have been weaving illusions for the public since time immemorial, on both the personal (FDR’s strenuous efforts to avoid being photographed in a wheelchair, for example) and policy end (From “Remember the Maine” to the “Gulf of Tonkin Incident” to “Saddam has weapons of mass destruction,” to name three war-related examples).
What’s changed, in the decades since the introduction of television, and accelerating with the Internet’s 24/7 news coverage, has been the politicization of virtually every aspect of politicians’ lives.
Why did Barack Obama drink a Bud Lite at the “beer summit?” Because any President of the United States is going to drink an American beer, and any Democratic President of the United States is going to drink a union-made American beer. Why did Hillary make it a point to down a shot of whiskey in public now and again? Because the first female president will be a woman who has … proven her manhood!
Yes, this routine is an imposition on the politicians. They have to tailor their every action to send “the right message” to their base, and to as many undecided voters as possible, while endeavoring to offend as few as possible.
What do they get out of it? Face time. Name recognition. And, most of all, an inflation of their perceived indispensability in the minds of the public. After all, anyone who’s so important that his or her dinner menu and vacation destination is breathlessly reported on the evening news must be really important, right?
Or maybe not. Maybe they’re just B-List actors in a show we’ve all been forced to buy a ticket to, but that we’d be better off not bothering to watch. Maybe we don’t need them as much as they think we do, or as much as they want us to think we do.
I couldn’t care less how Sarah Palin spent Thanksgiving. Got plenty of turkey right here to worry about already, thank you very much.