TIME Video Games

How Assassin’s Creed Unity Navigates the French Revolution’s Politics

Assassin's Creed Unity's creative director explains how the game engages with the French Revolution's controversial, often lopsided-looking political ramifications.

“[Just] as the French revolution … understood itself through antiquity, I think our time can be understood through the French revolution,” said Scottish poet Ian Hamilton Finlay, in a December 2001 Jacket interview.

Indeed, the French Revolution is one of these ever-topical historical periods brimming with controversies and lessons. It resonates across the political spectrum, and artists have explored it in countless books, movies, paintings, musicals, musical works, plays and more.

You can add games to that lineup on November 11, when Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed Unity rolls out the most elaborate interactive simulation of the tumultuous time yet conceived.

It’s not a political game in the sense others that grapple with events like the Israeli-Palestinian crisis or food imports in the U.S. head-on are sometimes described. But the label or category “political game” can be misleading. It suggests there’s such a thing as a nonpolitical game. That’s a misnomer. Even a game as inocuous as Pac-Man can have political implications, and positioning a book or film or video game as apolitical, say for commercial purposes, to avoid alienating potential buyers, is as political a maneuver as any other.

Assassin’s Creed III tried to square this circle by relegating its political commentary–some of it witheringly critical of American historical revisionism–to optional encyclopedia entries. The trenchant stuff was there, but mostly happened offstage.

Where does Unity sit on that spectrum? Does it dig into the French Revolution’s political ramifications directly, or circle the periphery? I put the question to Unity director Alexandre Amancio late last week. Here’s what he told me.

We’ve already seen the series’ ethical framework shaken in recent games, with storylines that question both the Assassins and Templars’ motives. Is Assassin’s Creed Unity a continuation of that degree-by-degrees shift, or a more radical rethink?

I think Assassin’s Creed Unity takes things even further than we’ve seen to date. I think the French Revolution is the perfect setting for that ambiguity, because if you look at the French Revolution itself, the idea behind it is obviously that this is one of the first populist movements, when the people revolted against this old-school autocratic society. But the way the French Revolution proceeded, up to the Reign of Terror, you can definitely see how something that starts off as a genuinely positive idea can turn into a bloodbath and chaos.

Ubisoft

You’ve described protagonist Arno’s story as a redemption quest. Redemption from what?

At the beginning of the game, Arno’s adopted father dies, and the father happens to be the Grandmaster of the Templars in France. And because of certain details surrounding this death, Arno feels somewhat responsible.

So joining the Assassins is a means to an end for Arno. By joining the Assassins, he feels he has a better chance at redeeming himself for this mistake. That may sound counterintuitive, because if you want to avenge the death of a Templar, you wouldn’t join their enemies.

The thing is, and this goes along with your question about moral ambiguity, that the Templar Grandmaster is murdered because of a plot within his own order. There’s an extremist movement that causes a shift in leadership, so it’s sort of a coup. And part of trying to figure out who was responsible for the death ties into finding out who actually murdered the Grandmaster and why the Templars are shifting ideologies, but it’s also mixed in with the French Revolution and who’s pulling the strings behind both things.

This is how we tie Arno’s redemption quest in with the Revolution. A lot of the elements we see in the French Revolution we try to echo and mirror through metaphor. It’s the idea of extremism and how if you take two separate political entities and you take them to extremes, they wind up looping back and becoming the same thing.

You see this especially at the beginning of the story, where the Assassins and Templars are getting a little closer, because they’re figuring that the state of France is hitting such a critical point that it might explode. So by maybe moving toward detente and working together, maybe they can prevent the situation from deteriorating into a bloodbath. But what you see is that there’s elements on both sides who’d rather see society crumble, and so the game is sort of a study of that.

Speaking of the factions, if we’re thinking on the grand scale of human history, specific political ideologies tend to be short-lived. Creative license aside, isn’t it stretching the bounds of plausibility to portray the corruption-obsessed Assassins and control-obsessed Templars as these ideologically cohesive movements for millennia?

The more you play on these high-level universal truths and the more you tie them to different areas of the narrative, whether it’s the character’s personal story or history itself, or the events, the more I think they start to permeate the whole experience. I think that’s how you build a deeper and more satisfying experience, where it’s not just surface and touches every part of the fabric of the narrative.

The Assassins certainly go through that. I think that’s reflected through Arno. Arno’s character arc is a reflection of the Assassins’ progression, from the beginning of the revolution to afterward, and how he understands the truths that were told to him at the beginning.

Any time you read scripture, you’re always responsible for interpreting it in a certain way. So the same text that you read before and after a traumatic event might have a totally different meaning. Y0u might realize that something you thought was an absolute truth at one point in your life, after certain trials and tribulations, you look at that same phrasing and you see in reality that it meant something completely different.

This is Arno’s character arc. It’s about the meaning of what it is to be an Assassin, and what the tenets of the Assassins truly mean. The reason we did this is that it’s a renewal for the series and a new beginning for the brand. It felt like this study of what it means to be an Assassin was very important for new players as well as those who’ve been playing the story for a long time.

Ubisoft

Now if you look at the Templars, you have a similar thing going on, but with a different take altogether. The idea is that if you look back at the historical Templars in the Middle Ages, there was a great betrayal, a purge of the Templar order executed by Philip the Fair [Philip the IV, king of France in the late 13th century] and the Pope [Clement V]. This was the historical end of the Templars. And if you look at what Jacques de Molay [the last official Grandmaster of the historical Templars] was actually doing, he was already shifting the world toward something else. He thought that autocratic control was not the way to go, because people are always going to rebel against control and seek freedom. Even if the Templars believed people needed to be controlled, he understood you will never be able to change human nature.

So he was shifting the order toward something else, like a banking system, maybe something where people would control themselves if the system was built to reflect human nature. And if humans could regulate themselves, maybe it would be much easier to control things. But before he was able to undertake this, there was a betrayal and the Templars were purged.

What we’re seeing in Assassin’s Creed Unity, is somebody rising up, finding these old texts and realizing this guy was a prophet, that he was centuries ahead of his time, and this is what has to be done, and that the French Revolution might be the perfect setting to pull the strings and shift the world from something involving autocratic control to something more governed by desire and money and the economy.

How politically pointed can you afford to be in a game that’s part of a multibillions franchise, played by players of many political persuasions? How corporate-beholden are you to keep the political implications of this plot point or that one anodyne?

Very little, because that only becomes delicate when you want to take a strong position with a certain kind of view.

What we actually try to do, and I think this is just a personal belief that we have, is to avoid reducing history. You can’t start taking sides, because that makes it biased, and what we’re really trying to do is expose every slice of history in the most unbiased way possible.

It’s obviously incredibly difficult. History is always subjective, because it’s written by people, and no matter how objective you try to be, human nature makes it subjective. We try very hard to portray things as factually as possible. But for instance, we discovered that the French Revolution even today is controversial. Historians and specialists of the period don’t agree with everything and every event. We consulted with two historians on the project. We had a full-time historian on the project, but we worked specifically with two people known in French Revolution scholarship circles, and we had them review the entire script. And we noticed that even between them, there were things about which they didn’t agree. One of them thought that portraying a certain event in a negative way was positioning us in a Royalist category, for instance. You know, the September Massacres are called the massacres and not “the jubilation” for a reason, right? However well-intentioned the initial purpose was, the fact remains that it was a time of chaos.

So they weren’t always in agreement, but one thing the historians were in agreement about was that we portrayed the French Revolution in the game in a very objective way. They felt it was faithful to the gray area of this period. The very fact that our narrative is not about something that’s moralistic in the sense that we’re not forcing you to side with a certain camp expresses this. Our story is about individuals, about how these events take them down a road where they’ll learn things about themselves and their own views. We’re not trying to expose the evils of society and say these people were wrong, these people were right.

If anything, what we end up saying is that everybody was wrong. It’s a human thing. We believe in a certain truth or certain ideals, and then because we’re protective and convinced by these ideals, we fall into the trap of taking them to extremes. And the thing is, most often the truth’s somewhere in the middle. If anything, we’re trying to say people should try to keep a more open mind about the other side’s position on the political spectrum.

Ubisoft

You’ve also said that in Unity, unlike in Assassin’s Creed III where as Connor you were involved in or even instigating pivotal events in the American Revolution, that’s not what you’re up to as Arno. You’ve called Unity more a romance that happens to be framed by the Revolution. But romances are really, really tricky to pull off in any medium without botching the chemistry or coming off as oversentimental. I can’t think of a non-indie mainstream game that’s really done it.

You’re absolutely right. When you’re making a game about anything emotional, cinematics are your way of telling the narrative. The thing is, when you’re watching a cinematic in a game, you’re removed from the core of the experience, which is your input with the controller.

You mention indie games, and I think there are some that have succeeded in having you really experience emotion or feelings for NPCs when you’re playing the game by generating those things through interaction. The reason a shooter is visceral is because the movement and pressing of the button is exactly reflecting the emotion you’re trying to convey, say stress, adrenaline and so forth. Every time you’re able to provide input through the controller and directly reflect the emotion you’re trying to convey, it works. On the other hand, when you’re asking the player to be passive in watching interaction between characters on screen in a cinematic, of course the player’s going to feel removed, because games aren’t films.

What we tried to do is make the romance, as much as we could, happen during gameplay. Of course there are some cutscenes where a little bit of exposition takes place, but that’s inevitable. We really try as best we can to have the characters interact during gameplay. I think that’s how you get players to feel something in a video game.

Now another thing we did is the fact that, because the nature of a romance story is the interaction between two characters, and usually the gameplay is about you stabbing people or sneaking around the world, it makes it very difficult to do romance as something other than a side element. But because we made Arno’s romantic interest, Elise, a Templar, because she is from a different faction than the player, all of a sudden that makes it more relevant. Even if their ultimate goal is the same, because she’s affiliated with the losing part of the Templars, the one that got purged, their methods might differ, and their motivations certainly differ.

I really like opposites, and I like exposing the opposites, because I think that it’s through showing the opposite of something that you can strengthen what you’re trying to convey. Elise is motivated by a desire for vengeance. Arno is motivated by a desire for redemption. These two things are very different, because one ultimately leads to your doom, while I think the other can lead to you actually being saved.

By making their objectives the same, but their motivations opposite, hopefully their interactions will create tension, and players will feel this impossible decision and the inevitability of the relationship as they move forward. Ultimately the romance part of this game is a Cornelian dilemma, where Arno is stuck in this impossible decision, where he ultimately has to choose between the values of the Creed and his love for this woman who happens to be on the opposite side of the spectrum.

TIME faith

Pope Francis’ Family Synod Forgoes Flash for Spiritual Depth

Pope Attends Holy Mass For The Opening Of The Extraordinary Synod On The Family
Pope Francis attends the Opening Mass of the Synod of Bishops in St. Peter's Basilica on Oct. 5, 2014 in Vatican City. Franco Origlia—Getty Images

It can be easy to fixate on the idea that the Extraordinary Synod on the Family beginning in Rome this week is purely about Catholic Church politics. The world clamors for the latest Catholic hubbub about divorce and remarriage policies, annulment reform, and which Cardinal holds which position on what agenda or controversial marital issue. But something more is happening as bishops gather for the first major doctrinal and pastoral summit of the Francis papacy; something quieter, deeper, and less immediately obvious: a spiritual renewal that Pope Francis hopes to foster between church leaders and their people.

This spiritual undercurrent, although quiet, has been powerfully present in the Holy Father’s actions this weekend. On Saturday evening, before the synod officially began and as a pink sun set behind St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Francis called the people to gather in the piazza to pray for the upcoming two-weeks of Synod conversations. A choir chanted a hymn as tens of thousands of people arrived, each silently, most with their families. When dusk fell and the moon had risen, each person lit a candle, and thousands of drops of light filled the square. Vieni Santo Spirito, vieni, or Come Holy Spirit, come, the people sang with the choir, over and over. “May the Wind of Pentecost blow upon the Synod’s work, on the Church, and on all of humanity,” Francis told to the crowd. “Undo the knots which prevent people from encountering one another, heal the wounds that bleed, rekindle hope.”

This prayer service was more testimony to the conviction that any real change in the Church must start with prayer—and a reminder of the people themselves. They, these people, these families, are the reason Francis called this Extraordinary Synod in the first place. It is only the third such special meeting a Pope has called since the Synod of the Bishops was created in 1965. The crowd was so vast that Francis himself most surely could not see the details—the children playing with their candles and dripping wax in patterns on the pavers, mothers comforting crying babies, a son helping a grandmother to a chair, the teenage couple taking selfies—but these are the people who experience the issues of family and marriage in ways clergy, who are celibate, rarely do. He was telling the people that they were foremost on his mind as the Synod began.

Francis was also reminding the bishops that the people were foremost on his mind. Most of the church leaders present Saturday evening had just arrived in Rome after having prepared for the Synod for a year, surveying their own congregations about modern family life for their peers’ review these coming weeks. Now, Francis stood before them and the first thing he did was to gather them to encounter the people and their sparks of light. Only when the service ended did he turn to greet the cardinals, one by one. The liturgical message about his priorities, and their priorities in turn, was hard to miss.

If the Holy Father’s Saturday prayer service was about the people, his Sunday mass turned to the bishops. Inside St. Peter’s Basilica, standing beneath Michelangelo’s dome and above St. Peter’s tomb, the Holy Father gave a pointed homily about the bishops’ role. The job of leaders, he preached, is to nurture the vineyard—a Biblical image for the people of God. “Synod Assemblies are not meant to discuss beautiful and clever ideas, or to see who is more intelligent,” he preached. “We are all sinners and can also be tempted to ‘take over’ the vineyard, because of that greed which is always present in us human beings. God’s dream always clashes with the hypocrisy of some of his servants. We can ‘thwart’ God’s dream if we fail to let ourselves be guided by the Holy Spirit.”

His meaning was clear. This meeting is not a time for the bishops to each shine with their own debates, Francis was saying, but rather a time to focus on the people and what the people need. It is, as he put it, about developing “plans [that] will correspond to God’s dream: to form a holy people who are his own and produce the fruits of the kingdom of God.”

The next two weeks will be telling. Francis is presiding over the world’s last truly medieval court, which can at times appear to revert to high school drama and power plays. But the spiritual moments that have shaped the Synod’s start are a concrete reminder that Francis the pastor is the one calling the shots. He’s the one walking the incense around the papal altar at mass, he’s the one celebrating Eucharist, and he’s the one determining where the ultimate emphasis is placed. He is the one in St. Peter’s seat. The bishops are there at his request. It’s the tone he sets that matters.

TIME politics

Latinos Are Stuck In an Abusive Relationship With Democrats

LA May Day Marches Celebrate Workers, Push For Immigration Reform
Marchers rally under the Chinatown Gateway before marching to the Metropolitan Detention Center during one a several May Day immigration-themed events on May 1, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. Demonstrators are calling for immigration reform and an end to deportations of undocumented residents. David McNew—Getty Images

Arturo Carmona is Executive Director of Presente Action and Presente.org, the nation’s largest online Latino organizing group.

If we don't take a stand and break up with the Party, we may never see Obama take action on immigration

It is clear that President Obama, and perhaps the Democrats more broadly–are starting to see Latinos as a political football to be tossed around when it suits their political needs.

For months, President Obama promised that he—and the rest of the nation—were done with Republican obstructionism on immigration reform. In June–President Obama told us—told the world—that by the end of the summer he would announce how he would use the power of his office to end the threat of deportation for more immigrant families.

In calling out Republican efforts to block reform, the President attempted to paint Democrats as Latinos’ only option for relief. He painted himself, and the Democrats, as our beacon of hope–all while four Senate Democrats plotted behind the scenes to undercut us for political gain.

Senators Kay Hagan, Mary Landrieu, Mark Pryor and Jeanne Shaheen joined the charge led by Tea Party Senator Ted Cruz to derail the only pathway that can provide relief for immigrant families–and President Obama caved to their political demands.

President Obama put the politics of their re-election before the lives of countless immigrant families currently under siege.

Frederick Douglass once said, “power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted.”

The President, and the Democrats, have been testing Latinos–they have been slowly increasing the injustices committed against our communities to see what our breaking point is. And they have finally found the point of resistance.

If we do not resist–we may never see the President take action to stop deportations, despite the fact that he has the power to do so. We also may never see relief for our communities, for it is clear that relief is not coming from Democrats of their own volition.

The President’s sheepish move put politics over the safety and well-being of immigrant families and communities—all but guaranteeing that many more families will be torn apart, and that thousands more of our undocumented friends, relatives, colleagues, classmates and neighbors will face the horrors of midnight ICE raids and mass deportations.

The Democratic Party is telling us that they no longer have the well-being of Latinos and other immigrant communities at heart–but will we listen?

The national Democratic political apparatus acts to appease us when they fear political cost because they understand that as Latinos become a larger portion of the American electorate, we are crucial to their political power.

But so long as Latinos identify with the Democratic Party when they treat us as political pawns instead of a key constituency they should be wooing, we should not expect better treatment.

To borrow an old, sexist, trope: Why should they buy the cow when they get the milk for free?

Power concedes nothing without a demand. This historical moment demands a new approach: a strategy for changing the nation’s terroristic immigration policy that recognizes that the Democratic Party is not our friend simply because so many members of the Republican Party have shown themselves, in no uncertain terms, to be our enemy.

Latino political power must begin and end with the independence of the Latino vote. It’s time to drop Democratic Party affiliations, and ask the Democrats to work for our votes.

We can’t afford to continue buying into the false choice presented to us by the two dominant parties. That’s why Presente Action has chosen to encourage Latino voters and our allies to turn out in force for the November elections but not vote for the Dirty Four Senators who betrayed our community so publicly and so shamefully: Kay Hagan, Mary Landrieu, Mark Pryor and Jeanne Shaheen.

Confronted with broken promises, if Democrats want our votes, they should damn well have to work for them.

Arturo Carmona is Executive Director of Presente Action and Presente.org, the nation’s largest online Latino organizing group.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Media

Let’s Give America’s Royal Baby a Time Out

Clinton Baby Chelsea Clinton Hillary Clinton Bill Clinton
Former President Bill Clinton, right, and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, second from right, wave to the media as Marc Mezvinsky and Chelsea Clinton pose for photographers with their newborn baby, Charlotte, after the family leaves Manhattan's Lenox Hill hospital in New York City on Sept. 29, 2014. William Regan—AP

Nick Gillespie is the editor in chief of Reason.com and Reason.tv.

Is there anything more distasteful than the obviously strategic use of babies by the rich and powerful to gild their images?

As the father of two, I can personally attest to the power of babies and toddlers to melt the coldest heart (mine) and coax a smile from the stoniest of faces (also mine). Well, my kids’ power, anyway. They were (and are) supernaturally, objectively, transcendently beautiful creatures. About yours, I couldn’t honestly say (though I kind of doubt it).

But really, is there anything more distasteful than the obviously strategic use of babies by the rich and powerful to gild their images—and the media’s feckless complicity in the spectacle? Whether it’s the British royal family constantly pushing the toddler Prince George toward the camera or breathless reports of Hillary Clinton’s newfound “grandmother glow,” can we just change its diaper, give it a pacifier, and put it to sleep already?

It’s easy to understand why Brits might take an interest in George and his parents. Not only will the 14-month-old one day rule over them, they’ve really got nothing better to do. Dr. Who is only on so many hours a day, after all. Watching the boy-king pad around on his hands and knees is a welcome diversion from contemplating a century-long slide from world domination, his father Prince William’s advancing baldness, and his grandfather Prince Charles’ continuing existence. And now that the Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton has taken care not to flash the commoners anymore, watching George hold court at “low-key tea parties” is about as diverting as it’s going to get in old Blighty.

But why do Americans care about this kid (or, same thing, why does the press assume we care)? There’s nothing more genuinely antithetical to American values than the wealth, titles, and leisure of the British royal family. If memory serves, we even fought a war over it. Inherited privilege brings with it a empire-sized sense of entitlement, which is on brilliant display in William and Kate’s new legal action against photographers who they claim are “stalking” the very baby they trot out daily like an exotic monkey.

William and Kate, a royal spokesman explained to CNN, want their son to have “as normal a childhood as possible” and demand that the press not publish unauthorized shots of George. Please. If you want the kid to have anything approaching a normal childhood, put him up for adoption or have him work his way up from the royal stables (sort of like how the Duchess of Cornwall did). Even America’s raggedy version of royalty—that would be the Kardashians or maybe the Duggars—understand that unearned wealth comes at the cost of your privacy and control over your image.

Controlling your image, of course, is something that Hillary Clinton knows a thing or two about. The former first lady, senator, defense secretary, and presumptive 2016 presidential candidate is a master of adaptation and continued success. Indeed, it’s tempting to say at this point that her husband is slowly being revealed as a bit player in her personal and professional epic, rather than vice versa.

During Bill Clinton’s presidential years, Hillary Clinton readily morphed from a feminist icon who would serve as co-president to a long-suffering, stand-by-your-man, cookie-baking spouse and back again. As a senator from New York, she earned high praise for pragmatism, coalition building, and bipartisan binge-drinking. Despite a patently disastrous term as secretary of state (exemplified by the violent death of the American ambassador to Libya and the failure to “reset” relations with Russia), she’s nimbly laid all the blame for U.S. foreign policy in President Obama’s lap and has emerged as an unreconstructed war hawk at a moment when Americans are calling for blood again.

If Clinton has had one blind spot in her image, it’s that she’s often perceived as less than fully human. If Bill felt our pain, Hillary either kind of enjoyed it or couldn’t be bothered to deal with it. Now that daughter Chelsea—whose undistinguished professional life is reminiscent of British royalty—has produced baby Charlotte, that’s all changing.

Hillary is missing no opportunity to publicly play at grandmother, a role that can only soften and round out her image as the presidential campaign season swings into high gear. “I highly recommend it,” she told CBS News about becoming a grandparent. At a recent speech to a group of women real estate agents, a member of the audience told Clinton that she looked “beautiful.” To which Clinton responded, “I think it’s a grandmother’s glow.”

Or maybe it’s the fire of political ambition lighting up her cheeks. As far back as June, she was systematically linking her grandchild to world events, telling People, “I’m about to become a grandmother… I want to live in the moment. At the same time I am concerned about what I see happening in the country and in the world.”

OK, we get it. The kid is a prop in a political play. The baby doesn’t just soften you up, Mrs. Clinton, it softens us up, too. Which may actually be excellent public relations but is also deeply disturbing.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME fashion

From Eleanor to Michelle: The Inside Scoop on First Lady Fashion

Tim Gunn and other fashion experts weigh in on First Ladies from Dolley Madison to Michelle Obama

It’s hard to imagine a job in which the clothes you wear to work are more closely scrutinized than that of the First Lady of the United States. Not even the President is so meticulously judged. And in any event, choosing between a dark suit or a tan suit (gasp!) doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for error.

The First Lady’s fashion choices are — and always have been — imbued with political power and laden with controversy, as I learned the National Archives’ event “Style and Influence: First Ladies’ Fashions,” a raucous panel discussion—not an oxymoron, turns out—moderated by Project Runway’s Tim Gunn. Fashionistas present included Valerie Steele, museum curator at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Lisa Kathleen Graddy, curator at the Smithsonian’s First Ladies Collection and designer Tracy Reese.

Admirers have praised Michelle Obama’s elegance — Gunn called her “divine” — while her critics have lambasted her informality (remember Shortsgate?). But striking the delicate balance between the need of the First Lady to meet high fashion standards while appealing to America’s populist inclinations has always preoccupied the women who’ve held the office.

Dolley Madison (in the White House 1809 to 1817) was derided for being too flashy for American tastes, even though her most well-known dress, a red, high-waisted, no-corset, “empire style” gown, evokes the republican values of ancient Rome. Dolley’s famous red dress is rumored to have been made out of White House curtains she rescued from British arsonists during the War of 1812 — a legend that is, tragically, almost certainly just that.

By the latter half of the century, Dolley’s sleek gowns were old news and American men were all about that bass, no treble. That fuller look was reflected in the wardrobe of the Harriet Lane, the niece of lifelong bachelor President James Buchanan and the first person to be called “First Lady” by the press (they simply didn’t know what else to call her).

According to one writer in the 1880s, “No man would stay long with a woman whose skinny buttocks he could hold in the palm of one hand,” said FIT’s Valerie Steele. And as Tracy Reese noted, we may have come full circle on the big-bottomed style of the era. “Sounds like Nicki Minaj,” she said.

Through the end of the turn of the century, the Roaring Twenties and into the Depression, some First Ladies wore the fashions of their era better than others. Edith Wilson, wife to President Woodrow Wilson, liked to do her own alterations to her clothes with mixed success—Gunn guessed she’d be the first jettisoned from Project Runway. And the image of Eleanor Roosevelt as intrepid if somewhat unfashionable is not altogether true. The Smithsonian’s Lisa Graddy told of a dress that looks conservative on a mannequin but that Mrs. Roosevelt wore with the sleeves removed and unclasped, giving the gown a “nice, draped, low back.”

“She was a bit of a minx,” added Gunn.

The First Lady’s fashion decisions have always had political impact but never more so than in the era of mass visual media, beginning roughly with Jackie Kennedy’s gilded tenure. Jackie’s famously expensive, quasi-aristocratic taste in clothes was such that GOP politicos deliberately tailored the styles of the next Republican woman to inhabit the White House, Pat Nixon, to strike an everywoman note meant to appeal to the supposedly average Americans in President Nixon’s “silent majority.”

Then in the 1980’s, Valerie Steele from FIT notes that Nancy Reagan “almost single handedly, transformed red from the color of Communist revolution to the color of Republicans.” Not a bad scalp for the better half of Mr. “tear down that wall.”

Not all First Ladies are particularly interested in fashion. Hillary Clinton was surprised by the amount of attention her clothes attracted, Steele said. And Laura Bush was largely uninterested in the kind of high-concept fashion thinking that preoccupied someone like Nancy Reagan, who, we’re told, meticulously labeled every dress with the last occasion on which it was worn.

The fashion pendulum has swung back again with Michelle Obama, who, notwithstanding her taste for affordable middle-brow threads (she’s a J. Crew fan), seems to have a personal stake in the statements she makes with her formal wear. Tracy Reese designed the dress Obama wore to the 2012 Democratic National Convention, a dress that was delivered with sleeves attached, Reese said. Obama, who has a well-known fondness for going sleeveless, personally had the sleeves removed.

TIME politics

How To Fix the Secret Service

House Oversight Committee Hearing on Secret Service Errors
Julia Pierson, director of the U.S. Secret Service, is grilled by members of congress during a Hearing by the House Oversight Committee on the flaws and errors by the U.S. Secret Service in protecting the White House held at the Rayburn House Office Building on Tuesday, September 30 , 2014, in Washington, DC. The Washington Post—The Washington Post/Getty Images

Ronald Kessler is the author of The First Family Detail: Secret Service Agents Reveal the Hidden Lives of the Presidents.

If a corporation is performing poorly, the CEO is replaced with an outsider who can shake up the company and change the culture—the same should apply here

If you are wondering how the Secret Service became such a tarnished agency, look back to 2003 when it became part of the Department of Homeland Security.

Forced to compete for funds with 21 other national security agencies in a department of 240,000 employees, the Secret Service, which previously was under the Treasury Department, became more political and compliant. Mark Sullivan, appointed director by President George W. Bush in 2006, proudly proclaimed that the Secret Service “makes do with less.”

Over time, corner cutting and laxness became more prevalent, while the agency became more arrogant. As revealed in my book The First Family Detail, it became commonplace for Secret Service management to order agents to let people into events without magnetometer or metal detection screening to curry favor with White House or campaign staffs impatient with long lines. Uniformed officers such as those who let Michaele and Tareq Salahi and a third intruder, Carlos Allen, into a state dinner at the White House in 2009 became convinced that Secret Service management would not back them if they turned away party crashers at the White House gate.

Agents who called attention to deficiencies or potential threats were punished, never to be promoted. Those who went along with such outrageous White House requests as turning off alarms and who perpetuated the myth that the Secret Service is invincible were promoted and given bonuses.

Reflecting that preoccupation with image, just after replacing Sullivan as director, Julia Pierson, his chief of staff for five years, sent an email to all agents reminding them to maintain a “professional appearance.” Tattoos should not be visible, and facial hair must be short and “neatly groomed,” she instructed. The FBI under J. Edgar Hoover reflected the same obsession with outward appearance, helping to conceal the bureau’s many flaws.

The Secret Service’s annual budget is $1.5 billion — about the cost of one B-2 stealth bomber. Besides its protective duties, the agency investigates counterfeiting and financial crimes. Given the importance of the presidency, doubling the budget would be money well spent. But rather than request substantially more funds, the Secret Service assures President Obama and members of Congress that the agency is fulfilling its job with the modest increases it requests. Pierson even proposed a decrease in funding.

Meanwhile, the agency takes on more duties, and sleep-deprived agents often work almost around the clock. Citing cost, the Secret Service has refused to update with the latest technology its devices at the White House for detecting intruders and weapons of mass destruction. Yet scrimping on protection of the president, the vice president and presidential candidates risks an assassination that would undermine American democracy.

Congress has also been derelict in its duty. When it comes to selecting a Secret Service director, Congress has never demanded accountability by requiring Senate confirmation.

The list of appointments that do require Senate confirmation is long and the positions often obscure. Not only the head of the U.S. Marshals Service requires Senate confirmation but also 94 marshals positions, one in each judicial district. Besides the head of the Drug Enforcement Agency, the director of the Justice Department’s Office for Victims of Crime requires confirmation. So does the librarian of Congress and the deputy director for demand reduction of the so-called drug czar. The Secret Service director is missing from this list.

Yet along with the FBI, whose director does require confirmation, the Secret Service is the paramount agency responsible for protecting American democracy. And given its powers, the service’s potential for engaging in abuses is almost as great as the FBI’s.

Since Pierson’s resignation, we have heard proposals to transform the Secret Service into an as-yet-undefined new agency, move it to another department such as the Justice Department, or even place it under the military. These are foolish ideas. If a corporation is performing poorly, the CEO is replaced with an outsider who can shake up the company and change the culture.

The same solution applies to the Secret Service. As FBI director, Robert S. Mueller III removed anyone who did not tell him an honest story. The FBI performed magnificently under his management, protecting us since 9/11 from foreign terrorist attacks.

As Mueller’s successor, President Obama made an excellent choice in naming James Comey, who previously served in the Justice Department. Given that his own life is at stake, I believe Obama can be counted on to select a similarly outstanding candidate to be the new Secret Service director.

Ronald Kessler, a former Washington Post and Wall Street Journal investigative reporter, is the author of The First Family Detail: Secret Service Agents Reveal the Hidden Lives of the Presidents.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME politics

Cornel West: Obama Administration Is a ‘Drone Presidency’

"I think he's settled for the middle ground rather than the higher ground"

Famed public intellectual Cornel West, whose new book Black Prophetic Fire is a re-examination of key black political figures through a different lens, was initially a big supporter of Barack Obama and appeared with him during his first presidential campaign. But in 2012, West says he didn’t even vote. “I couldn’t vote for a war criminal,” he said, calling Obama’s administration a “drone presidency.”

In an interview with Time for 10 Questions, which can be read here, the always outspoken West said the President lacks courage. “I think he lacks backbone,” he says. “I think he’s settled for the middle ground rather than the higher ground.”

One example of that, he explains, is the way Obama addresses young black men, which West characterizes as “paternalistic,” and very unlike the subservient way he deals with Wall Street. “When you say your major program for black young boys is going to be one of charity and philanthropy but no public policy, no justice, then criticism must be put forward just to be true to the black prophetic tradition,” he said.

The Obama legacy, West says, is contrast to the black leaders in the book, such as Malcolm X, whom West says, “specialized in ‘de-n___izing’ black people”–that is, he clarifies, encouraged them not to “be intimidated, afraid, and so scared of speaking [their] mind and allowing [their] soul to be manifest that [they] defer to the powers that be, especially the white supremacist powers.”

West, who’s no stranger to controversy, is currently a professor at Union Theological Seminary. He’s hoping to draw as many young people as he can to a rally in Ferguson, Missouri, on Oct. 13, to protest the killing of Michael Brown by police there. “It’s a beautiful thing to see the young people in Ferguson and all across the nation, organizing there.”

TIME In the Arena

The Delta Blues

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Saying grace Congregants of the New Hope First Baptist Church in Greenville, Miss., attend a town hall on Sept. 29 Daymon Gardner for TIME

Two town meetings, two very different kinds of despair

Politics in Mississippi is still passionate, as you might expect. And it is still tragic, which shouldn’t be a surprise, either. The passion seems to be running with right-wing Tea Party sorts, who are in full rebellion against the statewide Republican Party. The tragedy is in the black community, which is permeated by a deep sense of failure; the most basic political facts of life–like the value of integration–are being questioned. During the last week of September, I attended symmetrical town meetings in Mississippi: of former Senate challenger Chris McDaniel’s extreme conservatives near Jackson and of black elected officials and educators from the counties surrounding the Delta town of Greenville.

“Men don’t follow titles,” said republican McDaniel. “They follow courage.” He was quoting from the movie Braveheart, he said, citing William Wallace–an ancestor of the largely Scots-Irish crowd of 50 or so–as played in blueface by Mel Gibson. Wallace was McDaniel’s model. He fought against the English elites, just as McDaniel was fighting against the old, pork-loving Bourbon Republican establishment, people like former governor Haley Barbour and Senator Thad Cochran, who would compromise their principles in order to get public-works projects for the state. They had stolen the primary election from him. They had allowed an alleged 40,000 Democrats (a synonym in Mississippi for African Americans) to vote in what was supposed to be a Republican primary. Cochran had won. McDaniel was challenging the result. A lawyer explained the relevant codicils to the group before McDaniel got up to speak. It was reminiscent–to me, at least–of the civil rights attorneys 50 years ago, who educated Southern blacks about their rights under the law. There was a righteous “We shall overcome” attitude in the room.

The effort is probably quixotic. Most people in the room believed that the Bourbons “controlled” the legal system. In fact, many people in the room seemed to believe they were beset by conspiracies at the federal level as well. Their solution was a strict, if slightly muddy, libertarianism–McDaniel describes himself as libertarian–on all but social issues. Laura Van Olderschelde, the president of the Mississippi Tea Party, said she didn’t feel safe to “talk about my Christian faith away from Mississippi. That’s how this country was founded, and I cannot subscribe to people who want to deny that.” This unleashed a torrent of commentary from the audience. A woman named Tricia McNulty linked liberals to “Lucifer, who has wanted the fall of man.” A firefighter named Andy Devine said that liberals were in the midst of a long-term plot to take over the schools and impose socialism. They were sneaking this through because the media diverted the public with “the rutting habits of the Kardashian sisters.”

There wasn’t any debate about any of this; there was absolute conviction. The positions were stated in matter-of-fact fashion, but there was a media-wise quality to it as well. There was no mention of African Americans. The McDaniel supporters had been accused of racism and wanted to leave no trace of that. An accountant named Vince Thornton did mention that “so many people were getting something for free,” but that was about as far as it went. “We are not going away,” said Robert Kenney, who quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer about silence being a political decision. “We fight this,” he added, meaning the struggle against the state Republicans, “until we win.”

My first day on the job, a white plantation owner killed his wife,” said Andrew Thompson Jr., the first black sheriff of Coahoma County. “I waited until 7 p.m. to arrest him because I wanted him to spend at least one night in jail. But at 10 p.m., they”–the local white business community–“opened the bank so he could post bail.” That was the way it was now: no more lynching, no more violence. The white folks had gotten clever. “It’s been a roller coaster,” Sheriff Thompson continued. “We made some progress in the ’70s and ’80s, a lot of folks got elected, but we’ve lost ground the last 15 or so years, and especially since the Tea Party came along.”

The mood in the basement of New Hope First Baptist Church in Greenville was a roller coaster too. It started with anger and slowly lapsed toward despair. There was none of the lockstep certainty of McDaniel’s supporters. Something had gone very wrong in the Mississippi Delta black community, and there were an array of different explanations for it. Racism was one: Why were the white folks making all the money from the development of the 80%-black blues town of Clarksdale? Even the local Delta Blues festival–said to be the oldest in the country–was being supplanted by a white-led effort, the Mighty Mississippi Music festival, that was being supported by the business community. “If the whites aren’t running it, they don’t want to be part of it,” said Errick Simmons, a Greenville city councilman, who pointed out that the local casinos, which didn’t help out with the Delta festival, had contributed to the Mighty Mississippi, which–by the way–also featured country music.

The stories of subtle, and not so subtle, racism were compelling but insufficient. There was a piece missing, and these thoughtful people were growing uncomfortable with the increasingly obvious vacuum. The discussion really began to get lively when the Rev. Torey Bell, who said that “the system” was set up to keep blacks dependent, went a bit too far. Even the federal money that had come to upgrade the schools was a trick. “They’re putting in laptops and computers for our kids,” he said, “and they got none of that at home. They can’t comprehend that environment. It’s near impossible for them to succeed.” This was disputed by most of the older people in the room. They’d been working to secure that funding for decades. “At a certain point,” said Timaka James Jones, a clerk at the local court, “we’ve got to take some responsibility in our community too.”

I asked what had happened to the community, so famously strong during the civil rights movement. There was reluctance to answer, at first. But then it came in a rush: the rug had been pulled out from under them. They had rushed into integration and left some of their most cherished institutions in the dust. “We used to have black banks, insurance companies, bakeries, newspapers,” said Willie Bailey, a lawyer and state legislator for District 49. Now, Nelson Street–where most local black businesses were housed–was mostly deserted, except for churches, drug dealers and the famed restaurant Doe’s Eat Place. “The black church was the last institution standing, and then the [George W.] Bush Administration came along with that faith-based stuff, offering money to the churches for social programs, but they couldn’t talk politics anymore.” (I don’t know about that: more than a few black, urban pastors took the money and kept their megaphones.)

The segregated schools had been better, said Jessie Williams, who said she was the first black teacher in the newly integrated schools in the 1960s. The whites left and went to private “academies,” and the integrated public schools became sad all-black husks. The thing was, integration had enabled a lot of the best kids–those who would have been teachers and business owners–to go north. There was some resentment that they had never looked back. “Integration has been a problem,” Williams concluded, setting off a buzz in the room. “It’s the worst thing that ever happened to us,” muttered Sheriff Thompson. But he didn’t really mean that.

I’d like to thank Congressman Bennie Thompson for putting together the extraordinary group at New Hope First Baptist Church. The contrast between their candor and self-doubt and Chris McDaniel’s bold, bluefaced conservatives could not have been more striking, or more depressing. It is the difference between simplicity and complexity. The Tea Party folks believe that all they have to do is win their revolution and everything will be better. The blacks won their revolution, and lost their focus, and inherited a chimera of equality. Now they’ve got to do the hardest thing: regroup, develop new strategies and come on strong again.

TO READ JOE’S BLOG POSTS, GO TO time.com/politics

TIME politics

Kirsten Gillibrand On Why She Hates the Phrase ‘Having It All’

The Senator from New York opens up about appearance, sexism and how competitive sports helped her succeed

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) hates the phrase “having it all.”

“I think it’s insulting,” she told TIME’s Nancy Gibbs at the Real Simple/TIME Women & Success Panel Wednesday night. “What are you ‘having?’ A party? Another slice of pie?”

“‘All’ implies that a woman staying home with her kids is somehow living a life half-full. What we’re really talking about is doing it all. How do we help women do all the things they want to do?”

Gillibrand knows a thing or two about doing it all. The junior Senator from New York has spent much of her five years in office fighting to address sexual assaults in the military and on college campuses, all while raising two young boys. She opens up about her journey in a new book, Off the Sidelines, which included a bombshell revelation that some of her fellow Senators had made comments about her weight, including the now-infamous “porky” comments. She dedicates a whole chapter in her book to how a hyper-focus on appearance affects women who run for office.

(MORE: Frozen Songwriter Kristen Anderson-Lopez on Her ‘Aha’ Moment)

“In my first race, my opponent went after me twice on two different kinds of appearance digs: the first was she’s just a pretty face, meaning I’m far too stupid to be in Congress. And I said ‘thank you,'” she said. “The second one was negative campaign mailers where he used a very unattractive picture of me where I happened to be doing a press conference outside and my hair is waving wildly. And he tints it green, so I looked like this crazy witch with crazy hair and a green face—as if to say ‘how could you possibly trust this woman?'”

“They’ve studied this and they’ve found when [a woman]’s appearance is commented on publicly during a campaign, it undermines her; it actually hurts her,” the Senator said. “And it doesn’t matter if the comment is positive or negative. It undermines her credibility.”

But how did Gillibrand gain the confidence to continue running for office, despite her detractors? She attributes a lot of that bravery to playing competitive sports as a girl. “When you play on a soccer team or a squash team, you lose a lot, so you’re not afraid of being in a competitive situation,” she said. “I all of a sudden realized you can win by losing. When you play a tough match, when you compete, you learn a lot about your opponent.”

She also learned through competitive sports that losing can be “a gift.”

(MORE: Tamron Hall on How Not Getting Jobs Helped Her Succeed)

“If you’re willing to fail, you’re willing to compete,” she said. “You will not only learn faster, but that fear is eliminated.”

She added that mentorship helps a lot in navigating those moments when you do fail. She said Hillary Clinton has taken a few moments here and there over the course of her career to guide her in the right direction, and it’s helped her immensely, encouraging audience members to reach out to other young women in a mentorship capacity.

“[Clinton] helped me make the right decisions at the right time,” she said.

(MORE: Kirsten Gillibrand on the 2014 TIME 100)

But Gillibrand was careful to add that, for her, success wasn’t just about empowering professional women to achieve their goals–it was also about helping poor women. “We have to break the glass ceiling, but we also have to clean the sticky floor,” she said, noting that women are the sole or primary breadwinners in 4 out of 10 American families. “All of these women who are working to provide for their kids also need basic support.”

In order to help those women, the U.S. workforce needs paid family leave, equal pay, and universal pre-K, she said, adding that we’re unlikely to see those advancements until there are more women in Congress. Gillibrand pointed to the debate over contraception as an example of how out-of-touch the mostly-male legislature is with women’s issues, noting that 98% of American women have taken some form of contraception in their lives.

“Basic rights that our mothers and grandmothers successfully fought for are still on the table,” she said. “I can guarantee you that if Congress was 51% women, we wouldn’t be wasting a day on whether women should have affordable contraception. We would be talking about the economy.”

TIME 2016 Election

The Odds of George Clooney Running for President Just Doubled

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George Clooney and his wife Amal Alamuddin leave the city hall after their civil marriage ceremony in Venice, Italy, Luigi Costantini—AP

At least one British Bookie thinks marrying Amal Alamuddin may have been a shrewd political move

A Clooney/Pitt ticket in 2016, perhaps?

The likelihood that George Clooney will run for President of the United States doubled after he married prominent international human rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin, according to the British bookmakers William Hill.

The company announced Wednesday that it cut the price of a bet that Clooney will run in half, from 200/1 to 100/1, after “hints made by family members” that the actor has political ambitions.

On Sunday Clooney married prominent international jurist Amal Alamuddin in a high profile Venice wedding.

“George Clooney is not just one of the most recognisable faces in the USA, but in the world, and if he did decide to run for President he ticks a lot of boxes,” William Hill spokesman Rupert Adams said.

Hill still doesn’t think Clooney can win, putting those odds at 500 to one.

And who would beat him? Probably Hillary Clinton, who they place as the five to one favorite on winning the White House in 2016.

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