A Backward Look At The New Politics

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There has been much talk, during the current presidential campaign, about “the new politics.” This phenomenon depends largely on the candidates’ voluble entry into your living room by way of the TV set, larger than life and, they hope, twice as natural. Few of the people who voted for or against Abe Lincoln ever got close enough to him to see what he really looked like in action, whereas in this election, if the Republican candidate doesn’t shave closely enough, or the Democratic candidate develops a nervous facial tic, everyone knows about it.

This electronic intimacy, the theory goes, has brought a new quality into presidential politics. Looks and personality may count more than reputation or, for that matter, actual executive ability. For the first time in history a man’s political future may hinge on the same things that make a soap commercial a success or failure—as if, you might say, there were a Tide in the affairs of men.

It is interesting to speculate how some of our earlier Chief Executives might have come off under the exposure of the new politics. As a test case, let us consider the following scene in which the Father of his Country is preparing for a television appearance.

Scene: President Washington’s office, October, 1792. As a crew of technicians hustles about the room adjusting lights and other equipment, a make-up man, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, and Secretary of War Henry Knox hover around Washington, who is taking his seat in front of the camera .

M AKE-UP M AN . General, I think just a touch of the brush on the bridge of your nose would put the finish on it. It cuts down the reflection a bit. You have, if I may say so, Sir, a … a magnificent nose.

W ASHINGTON . Well, well, do it and be done with it! I reiterate that all this falderal over appearances, in my estimation, is a pack of stuff and nonsense. A man is, sir, what he is. How many people did you say will be watching tonight, Henry?

K NOX . Estimated at four million, sir.

W ASHINGTON . Hmmm. Four million. But who are they? Riff-raff, no doubt, for the most part.

H AMILTON . We all know that your people, sir, is a great beast. But as things go in this so-called democracy, sir, this beast can nourish a man or devour him. The beast must be pleased.

W ASHINGTON . You have a gift for metaphor, Hamilton. How’s my wig?

M AKE-UP M AN . The wig is perfect , General. Please remember not to try to adjust it after we go on the air. Don’t even touch it!

W ASHINGTON . Have I got time to take these damnable teeth out for a moment? They hurt my gums.

K NOX . Two minutes to go, General. Take them out for one minute, but make sure to re-set them firmly. Otherwise there is an unhappy sibilance attendant upon your enunciation of the s, sir, that the microphone tends to amplify. The sound men don’t like that.

W ASHINGTON [ false teeth in hand ]. Damn the thound men, thir! They care for nothing but effecth!

T ECHNICIAN . One minute! One minute! [ The lights come up, and, looking more lugubrious than usual, Washington pops his teeth back into place. The telecast begins .]

—E. M. Halliday