Posts Tagged ‘Gandhi’

The Imaginary Camera, Part II

In Sociology on February 14, 2009 at 9:37 pm

Matthew Thomas, Kyoto

Editor’s Note: Part I of “The Imaginary Camera” left off with Jennifer Senior considering why it is that politicians like Reagan and Clinton were so effective as personalities; she suggests that this is because they basically have no “backstage” character–that the space between the private self and the public face is in fact de minimus.

On Bill Clinton:

Senior’s point here is that the best politicians are basically the same on stage and off stage. In Reagan’s case, as a professional actor, Ronald Reagan the man had, over time, simply become “Ronald Reagan” the politician and public figure. In the case of Clinton, one suspects, the same end result, being truly comfortable in the role, was attained by sightly different means–Clinton as an adult seems simply to have never had a self apart from his political image. Senior quotes Clinton advisor Paul Begala (well-read enough to be familiar with Goffman) to this effect: “Erving Goffman used to make the distinction between front-stage and backstage personas. Bill Clinton has the least distance between his front stage and his backstage personas out of anyone I know” (129). Begala’s comment here is especially interesting if seen through the lens of John Harris’ account of the first meeting between candidate Clinton and the two hot operatives of 1991, Begala and James Carville. According the Harris, Clinton first interviewed Carville and Begala at a bar, and he was wooing these two rather than the other way around. “Clinton had a reputation as the consummate politician, so the operatives sat down waiting for a discussion laden with inside dope {…} Instead, Clinton launched into an impassioned discourse–nothing short of a sermon, really–about how troubled he was about his country.” Begala “swooned” but “in his crush {…} kept enough detachment to contemplate that the session had been a put-on, and what seemed like a wonderfully guileless performance actually had been a more sophisticated brand of artifice. Is this guy for real? he asked Carville” (xi).

Through our reading of Senior and Goffman we realize that the answer to Begala’s questions is of course “yes”–he was for real, in this sense, the performance was both entirely guileless (that is sincere) and entirely artifice (that is cynical and calculated), the two modes blending in Clinton to such an extent that there was virtually no difference between the two. Clinton, after all, had by this point been running for a very long time; he lost a congressional race in Arkansas in 1974 at the age of 28, won a race for Arkansas Attorney General in 1976 and one for governor in 1978 at the tender age of 32. When it came time to run for president, Clinton the candidate had essentially erased any vestige of Bill Clinton the man, with a backstage self distinct from the man in the floodlights. Senior traveled with Clinton to Africa in 2005, and came away with this observation: “Even when the cameras aren’t rolling, he’s always performing. The fantasy about Clinton is that he’s exactly like you or me. But he’s nothing like you or me {in} Africa {…} even in the most solitary circumstances, he lit up like a Christmas tree. He enjoyed performing in these quiet circumstances, often repeating the same jokes and anecdotes {…} It was like an imaginary camera was always running” (135). Continue Reading