Real Problems, Reel Presidents

It’s a given these days that the line between reality and illusion has been smudged, if not altogether erased. We look to politicians for a good performance and to actors for authenticity. When jumbo jets felled the World Trade Center, our immediate frame of reference was the movies. Arthur Miller’s essay On Politics and the Art of Acting comes after a long and successful career as mainstream America’s most political playwright. Before his own encounter with McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee, Miller wrote The Crucible, a political parable that, 50 years later, remains a staple of educational and community theatres.

McCarthy has been ringing in my ears lately, hearing Attorney General John Ashcroft reviling “the terrorists” as zealously as the senator did “the Communists.” We can easily surmise what Miller would have to say about the current roundup of Muslim citizens and foreign nationals and the proposed incursion into civil rights. In this text, however, originally delivered last spring as the National Endowment for the Humanities’ annual Jefferson Lecture, Miller’s context is the 2000 presidential election. (That “most hallucinatory” election, he says, was as failed a performance as it was a system failure, because some of the players dropped their roles, as when Dick Armey threatened to boycott any Gore inauguration, even though he was obliged to attend as a Congressional leader.)

Miller begins by acknowledging the fact, despite its discouraging implications, that “acting is inevitable as soon as we walk out our front doors and into society.” He goes so far as to suggest that democracy, premised as it is upon dissent, compels its leaders to employ the artifices of theatrical illusion. How else would we ever agree to take action? That said, Miller proceeds to complain that there is too much performing going on: “One of the oddest things about millions of lives now is that ordinary individuals, as never before in human history, are so surrounded–one might say, besieged–by acting.” The television age (Miller doesn’t get so far as computers and virtual reality) has plunged us into a 24/7 morass of mediated reality. Does it matter? Yes, Miller replies, it does, when the audience is induced to join in the acting, losing the ability to “locate reality.” Point in fact, he says, is the last presidential election, after which we were urged to move on with life–to pretend that “nothing in our democratic ways has deteriorated.”

Miller crystallizes (unwittingly) the problem of postmodern politics. On the one hand, the performative nature of social relations is undeniable. On the other hand, politics–governmental or cultural–holds material agendas that reach beyond mere appearances. How can we reconcile a postmodern politics that rejects unitary notions of “truth” and “reality” as inherently regressive and at the same time assumes the righteousness of its own goals?

But Miller is less interested in political theory than in unraveling the “mystery of the leader-as-performer.” What becomes a president? Relaxation, because it arouses receptivity. Danger, because it provokes desire. Mastery, because it inspires confidence. Vagueness, because it unites a fragmented populace.

Miller is at his best when assessing particular politicians–from the rise of Huey Long (“the most impressive victory of sheer acting ability this country has ever known”) to the fall of Bill Clinton (“our Eulenspiegel, the mythical arch prankster of fourteenth-century Germany who was a sort of mischievous and lovable folk spirit, half child, half man”). As for George W. Bush, “now that he is president, [he] seems to have learned not to sneer quite so much, and to cease furtively glancing left and right when leading up to a punch line, followed by a sharp nod to flash that he has successfully delivered it.” JFK is mentioned once, in passing. Reagan makes his expected appearance. It’s FDR who gets top billing, and in explaining why, Miller offers a definitive reason why empathic identification overrides logic in the political arena. For even though Miller vehemently objected to FDR’s nonintervention policy toward the Spanish Civil War, years earlier the president’s Home Owners Loan Corporation had saved Miller’s childhood family from eviction. FDR had “the impact of the star before whom resistance melts away, a phenomenon quite beyond the normal procedures of moral accounting.” So a star is inevitable? A mesmerizing despot (think Hitler) is irresistible?

The presidency is a heroic role. “It is not one for comedians, sleek lover types, or second bananas. In a word, to be credible the man who acts as president must hold in himself an element of potential dangerousness.” Brando is the obvious exemplar: “Brando had not asked the members of the audience to merely love him; that is only charm. He had made them wish that he would deign to love them. That is a star. Onstage or off, that is power, no different in its essence than the power that can lead nations.” In a nutshell: “The most perfect model of both star and political leader is that smiling and implicitly dangerous man who likes you.”

Miller seems wholly unaware of the gendered source of this script: Mom will always love you, but Dad’s respect you have to earn. (Lest I forget, the man who wrote “The Crucible” also married Marilyn.) When Miller talks about the president as a “leading man,” he literally means a “leading man”: Bogart, Stewart, Cagney… Singular names, unqualified icons. Each one male. A president must demonstrate the relaxed sincerity and cool self-assurance that characterizes “manly command.” What we need, he claims, is “the reassurance that we are in the hands of one who has mastered events and his own uncer-tainties.” I wonder, what do we want from our leading women? Do we measure mastery the same in a woman, and is it something we are willing to accept from her? Did Hillary Clinton’s unstinting self-confidence and un-equalled self-control in the face of public embarrassment mark her as an epic hero(ine)?

It’s all an illusion, Miller is quite clear, despite his longing to locate reality. The behavior offered for public consumption may bear no relationship to internal beliefs and emotions. To illustrate, he tells a Stanislavskian story about a Yiddish play back in the ’20s. In one famous scene, an actor spent several excruciating suicidal minutes with a revolver to his head. It was so startlingly nerve-wracking that the audiences came in droves to this theatre down on the Lower East Side just for this one scene. Asked afterward what he was thinking in these moments, the actor explained that he had never experienced a death wish of his own, but the thing he hated most was washing with cold water. While the character onstage was battling with oblivion, the actor was imagining stepping into an ice-cold shower.

The playwright is prompted then to inquire: “If we transfer this situation to political campaigns, who are we really voting for: the self-possessed character who projects dignity, exemplary morals and forthright courage enough to lead us in war or depression, or is he simply good at characterizing a counterfeit with the help of professional coaching, executive tailoring, and that array of technological pretense which the grooming of the president can now employ? Are we allowed anymore to know what is going on not in the candidate’s facial expression and his choice of suit but in his head?” (emphasis added).

Is the electorate as passive as Miller implies? The more useful questions may be: What role does the spectator/electorate play in this civic drama? Why was Gore criticized as arrogant when he tried to offer facts and argument? Are we getting the performers that we deserve–that we script? The candidates may be actors, but how much are voters directing the performance? Miller takes the press to task for falling thrall to a good show, but he does not hold the electorate similarly accountable.

Miller sees no escape from “the tragic necessity of dissimulation.” Except in the “other” theatre, onstage, where the artful lie may “construct a vision of some important truth about the human condition that opens us to a new understanding of ourselves.” In the very end, Miller plays the art card: Politicians will come and go, but art is forever. If all else is dissimulation, even if the artist himself [sic] is morally bereft, the artist in the act of creation is the truth-teller: “Tolstoy once remarked that what we look for in a work of art is the revelation of the artist’s soul, a glimpse of God. You can’t act that.” It’s a cheap theatrical trick, trotting out God and soul as his deus ex machina. This romantic notion of art as inspired, as asocial, as divine, doesn’t help further a political analysis. What he’s really doing is analyzing political performance through the eyes of the filmic spectator, enveloped in darkness and the big screen, awash in the infantile plenitude. It is an apolitical position, without room for resistance, let alone change. This occasion–the lecture, and now the book–is a lost opportunity for a more subtle, and useful, analysis of the performative dimensions of politics, and vice versa.

Ann Daly teaches performance studies at The University of Texas at Austin. A collection of her writings will be published this spring by Wesleyan University Press.

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Published at 12:00 am CST