Want to Be President? Get a Life (Story)!

Of the many frightening pronouncements that have leached out of the Beltway in recent weeks, none was scarier than President Clinton’s assessment of Bill Bradley’s Presidential campaign. The President, who of course is rooting for Al Gore, offered a surprisingly positive analysis of Mr. Bradley’s effort, leading to all sorts of talk to the effect that Mr. Clinton is armed with a knife that has the Vice President’s name on it.

No doubt Mr. Gore’s staff, bewildered and beleaguered as it must be, considered Mr. Clinton’s words nothing short of a nightmare. But the really scary stuff, the part that ought to send voters screaming into the night, was contained in just one sentence: In trying to explain Mr. Bradley’s strengths, the President said that the former Senator from New Jersey had “a good life story.”

Ahhhhhhhh! Not another good life story! Please! If we hear just one more story about any candidate’s trials, tribulations and triumphs, if we see one more sappy campaign video packaged like a Ken Burns documentary, if we are insulted with one more fake rags-to-riches story, we should march to the voting booths next year and write in the name of a neighbor, a friend, a relative, a role model, a family pet-anybody whose life story we consider eminently more compelling than the generally privileged people who seek our votes.

All history is biography, a wise individual said years ago. And now, in this wretched culture of celebrity worship (foisted upon the congregation by cynical high priests and priestesses who measure spiritual life by the amount of money in their collection plates), it may be said that all politics is autobiography.

Of course, it is hardly a wonder that Mr. Clinton should cite Mr. Bradley’s life story rather than some actual accomplishment in assessing the candidate’s strengths. Mr. Clinton, after all, sold us on his life story as a way of winning the People magazine vote in 1992. The man certainly understands the vapid nature of modern American politics. As of Jan. 21, 2001, a job awaits him as political editor of Talk magazine, assuming, of course, that … well, you know.

Every year, the voting public is bombarded with compelling life stories, with candidates who believe that the key to electoral success is in their autobiographies (real or imagined), not in their positions, achievements and beliefs. If nothing else, it’s the only way to get the attention of the glossy media types who would rather collect personal anecdotes than examine position papers. And every four years, at the television shows formerly known as national political conventions, the two major political rackets produce an astonishing array of blowhards to deliver a series of syrupy personal recollections, none verifiable, in place of what used to be called a “keynote address.” Back in the days when politicians at least pretended that ideas mattered, these speeches were supposed to set the tone for national political conventions. Nowadays, keynote speeches are designed to showcase a carefully chosen life story whose details can be tailored to justify the political message of the moment.

And what, after all, does Mr. Clinton find so compelling about Mr. Bradley’s life story? Son of a banker from the heartland. Brilliant student. Great athlete. Rhodes Scholar. Professional basketball player. U.S. Senator from New Jersey for 18 years. Left public life with reputation for integrity intact. Not bad. Sort of interesting. But we all know a dozen people whose life stories are more compelling, and they would hardly consider themselves thus qualified to be President. I share colleague Michael M. Thomas’ admiration for Mr. Bradley, but, if I may presume to speak for the great man (i.e., Mr. Thomas), it is the former Senator’s ideas and independence that so many of his fans find compelling, not the details of his autobiography.

Maybe this is a male thing, alpha or otherwise. After all, it is a given in the sports television industry that women are more interested in compelling life stories-the cross-country skier who overcame a hangnail at age 12; the pole vaulter who is afraid of heights, etc.-than they are in the actual competitions. Anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise (my wife almost went into premature labor watching the Rangers during their Stanley Cup spring in 1994), but the networks no doubt have scientific research on their side.

As sports go, so goes politics. Perhaps political consultants have concluded that women voters are more interested in candidates’ compelling life stories than they are in the campaigns themselves. And they tailor their campaigns accordingly.

Personally, I don’t find the gender explanation satisfactory. I think politics, like the television industry and glossy media, is in the hands of shallow, cynical and amoral cowards who hide their dysfunction behind a veil of what they presume to be a sophisticated hipness.

They give us compelling stories because it’s easy, it’s amusing, and, after all, it’s all we deserve.

Want to Be President? Get a Life (Story)!