Photojournalists love to capture politicians with backlighting, or standing before round seals and symbols; it helps the subject to stand out, of course, and where presidents are concerned the dramatic halo effect might be making a sincere or ironic editorial point. I wonder if there is something subconscious about it, though; do we need to see our president regardless of party, as someone with a connection to the divine?
Politicians are as susceptible to believing their own hype as anyone else, but when they do it affects all of us. My fear is always that a politician who has begun to take the adulation seriously will mistake permission to lead, for permission to rule.
In my introduction to Strange Gods, I explain that the germ of the book originated not while at prayer in a church pew, but while at play in an online political forum, where I first began to wonder whether Americans were turning their ideologies into idols. I first posed the question while Bush 43 was president, but it really kicked into my thinking with the 2008 elections:
“The urbane, polished, sophisticated, and well-educated looked at Obama, saw themselves, and loved him for it. Putting him in the White House meant putting themselves in there. As a Catholic priest stands “in persona Christi,” Obama stood “in persona meum.” For Palin fans, her plain-speaking, hard-working, up-from-the-middle-class story was their story, and elitist mockery of her non-Ivy college degree and her “you betcha” cheerfulness was a demonstration of disdain directed toward them. Voters over-identified with whichever idol best reflected them back to themselves. They loved the ideas they were hearing, because the ideas did not challenge but only affirmed.
Since then the right has gone through many iterations of “conservative savior” — Ryan; Rubio; Cain; Carter; Cruz — none of whom measure up on the purity meter; when they inevitably betray the fact that they do not perfectly conform to ideals, disillusionment follows, leaving many to feel not just let-down, but betrayed. The search for perfection — for the brow upon which that golden halo might be lain — continues.
Political leadership never deserved adulation; enthrallment has become a bad and destructive national habit, and one that threatens to cede too much power to whoever wins office, while discouraging bright, honest, but “imperfect” men and women from even running for office.
When I read the headlines of the past few weeks — particularly with these burgeoning revelations of abuses by the IRS, and the additional questions they raise, the indiscriminate campus speech codes that are arbitrarily being forced on students, the endless campaigns, the clear disdain government operatives seem to have for its own citizenry (and its diplomats) — it really brings it home to me, how poorly it serves the nation when its leadership is looked upon with anything but a wary eye. Our national media has become so incestuously linked to our government that it is no longer trustworthy or free, which is all the more reason why we might be much better off not looking to “love” our politicians.
If America were an office, and its citizens were its manager, one could say management has — over the past few elections — done a very poor job of pulling resumes and interviewing. It has allowed itself to hire dazzling bullshitters over the doggedly competent, and now wonders why there appears to be no one trustworthy in charge of the goods.
Put it another way, Don Draper may have married his “glamorous” secretary, Megan, but it was always the plain, competent Peggy Olson who was actually good for him, even if she did not always step perfectly to his tune (or perhaps because she did not) and might yet set him straight. We need to remember that when we look at our next prospective hires.