Monday, June 25, 2007

Ole Fred and the artifice of star power

In the wake of my Sunday newspaper column on the mediagenic assets of lawyer-actor-lobbyist-senator-actor Fred Thompson (that’s the career chronology of the GOP’s savior in the wings), I’m going to linger a bit longer on the words and wisdom of Arthur Miller.

In his book On Politics and the Art of Acting, the late playwright noted that successful politicians in our media-soaked culture tend to be masters of performance art. They know how to project “a relaxed sincerity…a laid-back cool…a self-assurance…a genial temperament,” all of which is meant to create the impression that hanging out with them is akin to taking ‘a quiet Sunday row around the lake.” And I argued yesterday that Thompson (or, as he has called himself, "Ole Fred") has the potential to project in this fashion, given the fact that he has honed his laid-back avuncular image on Law & Order and in dozens of movies over the past several decades.

Miller also contended that the most successful politicians – he cited Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton – are those who are somehow capable of mesmerizing the public via their celebrity star power, to the point where they get a pass on their presidential shortcomings. In print yesterday, I didn’t have room to explore this argument, so here goes:

Miller cited Reagan as the exemplar of the “relaxed sincerity” model: “He disarmed his opponents by never showing the slightest sign of inner conflict about the truth of what he was saying. Simple-minded as his critics found his ideas and remarks, cynical and manipulative as he may have been in actuality, he seemed to believe every word he said. He could tell you that atmospheric pollution came from trees, or that ketchup was a vegetable in school lunches, or leave the impression that he had seen action in World War II, rather than in a movie he had made or perhaps seen, and if you didn’t believe these things you were still kind of amused by how sincerely he said them. Sincerity implies honesty…He not only acted all the time, but did so sincerely.”

But Miller confessed that his wariness of star power was bipartisan. Six decades after the death of FDR, he recognized – at least in his most rational moments – that Roosevelt had failed as president on a key moral issue of his era: aiding the Jews of Europe. Miller wrote that, for instance, Roosevelt had “turned his back (on) the pleas of a shipload of Jewish refugees, men, women, and children who had arrived from Germany on the St. Louis, and were denied entry into America and had to return to Nazi Germany and their fate…he was seen as having chosen not to confront American anti-Semitism…There were some very good reasons to reevaluate one’s belief in Roosevelt. There were days when it seemed he had fooled a lot of people who had trusted him.”

And yet, Miller remains mesmerized: “To this day I can’t see a photo of him without feeling something like pride and a certain happiness which I seem to take in his style. It is emphatically not that I have carefully compared his positive and negative points, but something far less rational that keeps him a noble figure for me…(N)o verdict based on reason out to utterly blot out his bad deeds as I usually find myself doing. The truth, I think, is that he had the impact of a star before whom resistance melts away, a phenomenon quote beyond the normal procedures of moral accounting.”

Miller argues that Bill Clinton was able to navigate the Lewinsky scandal, and survive impeachment, in part because his own star power trumped the public’s temptation to utterly condemn him: “His love of acting may be his most authentic emotion, the realest thing about him…His closest American equivalent is Brer Rabbit, who ravishes people’s vegetable gardens, and, just when he seems to be cornered, charmingly distracts his pursuer with some outrageously engaging story, long enough to let him edge closer and closer to a hole down which he escapes…The actor lies; but with all the spontaneity that careful calculation can lend him.”

Fred Thompson, in other words, can potentially use his laid-back celebrity style, and the free advertising he receives from every Law & Order rerun, to override public doubts about his substance and his thin senatorial record. (On the blog recently, I charted some of the doubts.) Miller probably would have winced at the possibility that Thompson might succeed:

In politics and in mass culture, he wrote, “when one is surrounded by such a roiling mass of consciously contrived performances, it gets harder and harder for a lot of people to locate reality anymore. Admittedly, we live in an age of entertainment, but is it a good thing that our political life, for one, be so profoundly governed by the modes of theatre, from tragedy to vaudeville to farce? I find myself speculating whether the relentless diet of crafted, acted emotions and canned ideas is not subtly pressing our brains not only to mistake fantasy for what is real, but also to absorb this process into our personal sensory mechanism.”


By the way, if you link to the aforementioned Sunday column, you might spy a factual error. The column stated that Thompson "attacked" John McCain's campaign finance reform law. The truth is the opposite; Thompson backed the law. The error occurred because my original draft had a typo in it - I wrote that Thompson had "acked" the McCain law. The editors thought I meant to say "attacked," whereas I meant to say "backed." Apologies. My bad.