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Jewish World Review Feb. 4, 2000 /29 Shevat, 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Politics: When did the stagehands step onto the stage? -- 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.

Or do we?

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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