Jewish World Review Feb. 4, 2000 /29 Shevat, 5760
Politics: When did the
stagehands step onto
WHEN YOU GO to see a play, everything possible is
done to make certain you concentrate on the story,
and the actors -- and you don't see the stagecraft.
There may be costume assistants who help the
stars make quick clothing changes between
scenes; there may be stagehands tugging on thick
ropes to pull scenic backdrops into place when the
curtain is down or the lights are off; there may be
someone crouching in the orchestra pit to prompt
an actor if he should forget a line.
But you're not expected to notice any of that. Not
because you are unaware the stagecraft is there --
if you thought about it, of course you would
concede that a play doesn't just appear in front of
an audience on its own, with no preparation.
Yet -- because everyone realizes that the reason
the audience is there is the play itself, and the skill
of the performers -- the backstage people do their
jobs anonymously. The measure of their success is
how invisible they remain.
Politics used to be like that. The stagehands -- the
people behind the scenes -- tried to be just as
unseen and unheard as they could get away with.
They assumed that their boss, the candidate,
wanted it that way -- and that they were better
serving that boss if as few people as possible knew
who they were. If you're paying attention to the
stagehands, you're distracted from what the lead
actor is trying to say.
But in the current political world -- as the 2000
presidential campaign built up to full speed with
Tuesday's New Hampshire primary -- it seemed
that not only do the stagehands wish to be visible,
but that the audience -- the nation -- now believes
that the stagecraft is more important than the play.
Take, for example, the Al Gore-Bill Bradley race.
It doesn't appear to be enough that two bright,
serious men of the same political party are
competing for the Democratic nomination. What
really matters -- at least you get this impression if
you follow the campaign coverage -- is what the
stagehands are doing.
Newsweek magazine has reported that earlier in
Gore's campaign, Gore "was, to put it bluntly,
floundering: firing longtime aides, shuffling
campaign staff, groping for a theme, changing suits
and styles like a runway model."
What did this say about Gore, the man? Evidently,
in the world of presidential politics, that question is
all but irrelevant. Gore's stagehands -- his
campaign advisers -- decided that Gore should be
portrayed as a "fighter" -- as "Fighting Al." And,
according to Newsweek, the stagehands
"repackaged a man of legendary stiffness into a
scrappy champion of the common man."
Now . . . what is interesting about this is that the
report was not intended to denigrate Gore as being
a creation of his handlers. Instead, Gore was
placed in an admiring light because his stagehands
were so crafty: "Gore assembled a team of the
toughest consultants in town. He knew what he
wanted: a posse of the `Unforgiven,' who care
more about winning than being liked. . . . Being a
`fighter' would move the (campaign) story past
(President) Clinton, and show Gore's passion."
Whether Gore actually is a "fighter" or a man of
passion seems almost beside the point; what the
voters are being told is that his stagehands are
smart enough to pull this off. Indeed,
accompanying the Newsweek story was one
photo of Gore, one photo of Bradley -- and six
color photos, each with a thumbnail description, of
"Gore's attack team."
The new politics is based on the assumption that
the voters not only want to know about the
stagehands -- but that the voters are sophisticated
(or cynical) enough to realize that the stagehands
are the ones who matter. That if the voters focus
their eyes on the candidates themselves, the voters
will end up feeling like fools.
All of this most likely began with Theodore H.
White's landmark book "The Making of the
President 1960." In the book, published after the
John F. Kennedy-Richard Nixon election contest
was over, White reported on the campaign in a
way that had not been seen before -- he let his
readers in on the stagecraft.
Forty years later, his influence is still being felt --
during the campaigns themselves, in newspapers
and magazines and on television broadcasts.
Seeing the stagecraft instead of the play is
supposed to make us all feel smarter, and maybe
we are. But we don't elect the stagehands.
JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.
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