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Getting Personal With the President and Other People

Presidential biographies take up a sizable space in the U.S. History section at commercial bookstores, and stories about the presidents appear regularly on television documentaries.
Jonathan Sterne

Issue #38, May 1998

The latest scandals aside, interest in presidents as people is as big an industry as ever. Presidential biographies take up a sizable space in the U.S. History section at commercial bookstores, and stories about the presidents appear regularly on television documentaries. And of course the speculations in the media about the current sitting president has sold lots of papers. For the first time ever, a president is taken to court for his behavior as an individual person. Could it be that the presidency is becoming less about institutionality and more about personality? I wouldn't be the first person to think so.

Gunther Anders, a cultural critic writing in the 1950s, suggested that television would over-personalize American culture, where even Socrates would just be another "chum" on the TV set. Writing on the changing character of the public sphere during Reagan's administration, Michael Warner more ambivalently argues that through television and other media trends, American political life is looking more and more medieval. At what other time has the face of the leader, the body of the leader, and even the health of the leader, mattered so much? We can go even further in arguing that personality has plenty to do with the presidency: a brief glance through American newspapers shows that opposition characterizations of the presidency have relied on personification as a way of deflating the power of the office from George Washington on down to the present. Early phonograph records depicted the military glories of Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. F.D.R.'s fireside chats deliberately used radio as a way of making a "personal" connection with listeners.

What has changed is the nature and character of public interest in the institution and the "person behind it." I want to use the narratives of presidents' personal lives -- real and fictional -- as a way of talking more generally about the changing relations of formality and informality in American institutional life. Last fall, I heard a speaker from the UK jokingly call multiple personality disorder a peculiarly American psychological affliction. Perhaps there is some truth in his joke -- could we be suffering from an excess of personality? To consider these questions, I will talk about a couple of movies, a couple of presidents, and the fascination with turning the institutional into the personal.

Impersonating the President

Look inside the presidency. Strip away the layers of prestige, tradition, and institutional power and what do you get? A man. Every effort I've seen to get beyond the institution to the "person" behind the presidency is more of a narrative about the maintenance and management of masculinity than anything approaching a story about a real person like you or me. That masculinity is a big part of the mythos of the presidency should come as no surprise, but what's interesting is that it has become such an issue of late. In addition to recent fascinations with the details of Clinton's sexual life (along with those of other presidents: A&E Network recently ran a documentary on Lady Bird Johnson that dwelled on Lyndon Johnson's sexual escapades), there's the larger issue of exactly how masculine the president really is. Clinton's public shows of tears is actually quite complementary to his reputation as a sexual predator. It's all part of the whole man.

If Clinton is a strange mix of macho excesses and public tenderness, his predecessors took less divided routes. While the personal Bill Clinton shades toward the extreme and the contradictory, the personal George Bush shuttled between global macho man (courtesy of the Gulf War) and not existing at all. From the blank space in Doonesbury to Kevin Kline's Bush character in Dave, the defining image of Bush's personality before the Gulf War was its absence. But the war changed all that. All of a sudden Bush was the leader who helped America kick the "Vietnam syndrome" (being reticent about killing people in other countries). To trace it back one more step, if Bush had no personality, it's probably because Ronald Reagan was supposed to have so much -- ranging as he did from benevolent patriarch to inveterate militant conservative and cold warrior (the irony -- at least in terms of issues of "personality" -- is that Reagan was beginning to deteriorate while still in the presidency).

But apart from the lengthy written biographies, the real president's personality is developed in newsprint, soundbites, gossip, and short stories. This leaves little chance for deep soul searching or close attention to character development. Perhaps that's why the Hollywood movie presidents are far more developed than in real life. Ninety minutes to two and a half hours provides plenty of time to get inside the head of the chief executive to see if anything is "really" there. Yet the movie presidents, the ones we really get a chance to "know" -- as viewers who paid for the luxury of sitting and experiencing in the darkness and noise -- are just as much caricatures of masculinity as their real life. Back in the 70s and 80s, most of the presidents in film were hands behind a red telephone, the voice at the other end of the line, always a person in the next room. Hollywood didn't represent presidents so much as the presidency itself.

As presidents began to figure more prominently in action and drama scripts, however, this changed. Independence Day is a Gulf-War allegory that casts Bill Pullman as a weird combination of Bush and Clinton -- a former war hero who had become something of a wimp in office. When the aliens attack, he runs and runs, until he is finally cornered late in the movie, and gets back into an air-force fighter to help shoot down the enemy. Thanks to lots of faux-soul searching, cheesy inspirational speeches and his willingness to orphan his daughter to regain his masculinity in a fighter plane (after losing his wife to the aliens), Pullman's president is a real man again by the end of the movie. Over two decades, Harrison Ford's onscreen career shadows that of Pullman's character from fighter pilot (okay, the Millennium Falcon wasn't exactly a typical fighter) to American diplomat to the presidency. In Air Force One, he gets tough on terrorism only to have the terrorists take over his plane in mid-flight. "President Ford"'s masculinity is never in question.

Also a former war hero, Ford's character fakes an escape from the plane in order to save it. But what's most interesting about the movie is Glenn Close's character. I could imagine the casting staff of Air Force One patting themselves on the back for casting a woman as vice-president; but Close's character is completely ineffectual: she can't negotiate with the terrorists, and when asked to sign a document so that she's temporarily running the country while Ford is fighting terrorism the old fashioned way in flight, she refuses because of her faith in the president. It's like Michael Warner says: the body of the leader becomes the institution. It's more important to the emotional economy of Air Force One to have a male president in control even when he's on the verge of death than risk showing that a woman could do the job. I can just imagine the screenwriters thinking "America's not ready yet."

penis Other Hollywood presidents are more like caricatures. Gene Hackman's character in Absolute Power is a powermad president who drinks too much and whose sexual predation leads him to kill a woman. Throughout the film, he is characterized as a manipulating figurehead who's public behavior is calculated to protect his private behavior. Nicholson's president in Mars Attacks is the stupid and manipulating politician who, when finally cornered by the Martians, defends himself rather ineffectually with a speech. Kevin Kline's characters in Davecombine the image of the president as nothing but the presidency with the idea that a "regular guy" could run the country if just given the chance. Ultimately, Dave suggests that although the political system is hollow at the top, maybe it can work from the bottom up. Upon returning to civilian life after impersonating the president, Kline's character decides to run for office. It always seems to work out in the end at the movies.

What does the accumulation of these and other president stories tell us about the status of the presidency? I was struck by the subjection of the president to the conventions of Hollywood character development, either resulting in a president you're supposed to identify with as an audience member (Pullman, Ford, or Kline). As a viewer, I was supposed to feel for their psychological crises, their dilemmas, their personal trials. Hackman and Nicholson's performances, on the other hand, seemed to ask me to judge the president as a person. But in each case, we don't get "real people"; instead we get a set of very conventional characters in a predictable narrative situation. In each case, plot crises are narrated as crises of masculinity. While the U.S. burns, Pullman wonders if he's "still got it in him." So what's happening here? What can the replacement of one set of narratives about the sanctity of the office with another about masculinity in crisis possibly tell us? I can imagine a response that says that now we've got a major cultural crisis and this is opening up possibilities for political subjectivity because Americans can see their president as a person. But I think it's really part of a much larger post-1960s phenomenon.

Everybody's Getting Personal: The Cult of Informality

Whence the desire to "get to know" people in positions of institutional power? One possible answer is that this is a logical outgrowth of the critique of alienation. Since the Second World War, alienation has been a major issue for sociologists, activists, and artists. It has been the enemy. C. Wright Mills wrote in 1951 of the "self-alienation" required under bureaucratic capitalism to function as a middle class person in work and in life, a theme echoed by other notables like William Whyte and David Reisman: the condition of the middle class man after World War II was supposed to be alienated from himself and his world. This theme gets picked up in the writings of cultural leftists from the 1960s. Student radicals denounced the cookie-cutter roles and mind-numbing "conformity" they saw themselves poised to enter. Early second-wave feminists showed connections between personal problems and the larger structure of patriarchy oppressing all women. Consciousness-raising would lead to activism. Counterculturalists sought alternatives to mainstream cultural life in music, drugs, and alternative living arrangements.

Interestingly, neither radical working class groups nor civil rights groups picked up on this critique of alienation and the search for greater fulfillment. On the contrary, the matter of alienation seemed an almost distinctively white and middle class problem. Middle class problems have a way of finding middle class solutions. One look at corporate culture or even the academic culture in which I work (which I had at one time imagined as an "alternative" to a less-authentic corporate lifestyle) and one finds all sorts of responses to the critique of alienation. Everyone is on a first name basis; people dress down. Informality is the rule of the day. Today's middle class is living through an epidemic of assertive personalization and formal informalization.

Nothing exemplifies this better than the popularity of Dilbert in large institutions -- it uses the language of critique as a coping mechanism, as if by laughing at the ridiculousness of institutional life will somehow free us from it. Crises around sexual harassment can be read as in part deriving from the new culture of informality, where cadlike men can claim that they "just can't say anything to a woman anymore." Meetings drag on because people drone on thinking that "because we're all friends here we don't need to follow any rules of procedure." Even the trend toward the electronic office can be read in these terms. By working at home, my schedule is supposedly freer, but in the bargain, all of my non-sleeping time can potentially become work time. Informality may be nothing more than a euphemism for inequality.


What I am arguing is that interest in the presidency as the trials and tribulations of an actual person rather than an institution is part of this massive cult of informality in American life. To borrow a turn from Laura Kipnis' patently weird essay on adultery in March's Harper's: perhaps the public interest in the president's pubic life is a result of people having no language to express their unhappiness except through the narrative of marital contracts and the promise and danger of new sexual exploration. But we ought to at least consider the opposite possibility. Many on the cultural left have for some time operated on the assumption that by dissolving the formal into the personal they are somehow liberating themselves and others. But it is now time to reconsider that position. By naming power relations we better remember them; perhaps a modicum of the formal, the impersonal is as much a key to liberation in the world of advanced capitalism. It will be a good day when they start calling "team leaders" managers again.

When we try to look beyond institutions to the real people behind them, we get cliches not about the real person but about some attribute. The presidency is about the effectiveness of political power, so if we can't talk about the office, we'll talk about the man behind it. While institutional relations aren't exactly the mirror of the media's world, I think it's worth asking whether the critique of alienation as we've cracked it up is all it's cracked up to be. Certainly, the personal is the political; but it is equally true that the political is not simply the personal. If people spent more time naming the power relations in their own lives instead of describing them through diminutive and euphemistic personalization, might they have more insight into their workings? Might they be better able to move from an understanding their personal problems to the criticism of social problems, rather than turning the social into nothing more than the personal?

Even after writing this, Jonathan Sterne will still ask his students to call him by his first name. He is finishing up a doctorate in Communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In his free time he helps to organize a graduate employee union and plays in a band. He plans to build a website this summer and is wondering about negotiating the institutional and personal online.

Copyright © 1998 by Jonathan Sterne. All rights reserved.