• U.S.

Acting Like a President

4 minute read
Richard Brookhiser

When some Republicans look at former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson, what they see is the glory that was Reagan. “Fred Thompson, like Ronald Reagan, has the ability to bring conservative principles to the Oval Office,” promises a draft-Thompson website. But there is another resemblance: Thompson, like Reagan before him, belongs to the Screen Actors Guild.

Political scientists speak of the communications skills of Reagan, Thompson and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, but that is a tad solemn. Better to call what they do by its simple, professional name–actingso long as we acknowledge that most successful leaders have done their share of performing too.

America’s first actor-leader was George Washington. We have trouble thinking of him as theatrical because we’re so used to seeing a static version of him on worn quarters and wrinkled dollar bills. But in his day, he compelled the spotlight of public attention and was a master of political stagecraft. All his life, Washington was mindful of his physical presentation, from the uniforms he designed and wore to the way he sat on a horse. One of his great moments as a leader involved a bit of stage business. At the end of the Revolutionary War, he faced a corps of officers who feared they would be sent home, by order of an impecunious Congress, without pay. He called a meeting to assuage their disgruntlement and head off mutinous thoughts. At the climax, he offered to read a letter from a Congressman who promised better things. He began, paused, then took out a pair of glasses. “Gentlemen,” he said, “you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.” Exeunt omnes. End of the mutiny.

Several Presidents have been renowned for their magnetism, which we think of as a fortunate personal trait, like good looks. But deploying charm and projecting it are histrionic skills. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s appeal was heightened by the polio that crippled him in 1921. He developed the ability to make people forget his leg braces and feel at ease in his presence. Those who met him when he was President, or even saw his million-dollar smile at a distance or in a newsreel, felt heartened. Winston Churchill said being with him was like “opening a bottle of champagne.” Good vibes are not in themselves solutions to problems. But at the nadir of the Depression and in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt conveyed the sense that solutions would be found.

Ronald Reagan’s upbeat personality developed early in life as a way to both accept and transcend a beloved alcoholic father. But years of performing and public speaking molded it into a persona that helped win landslides and kept his enemies off balance. Reagan could go to Berlin and tell Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall!” just months after negotiating earnestly with the Soviet leader at Reykjavík, all the while withholding concessions on the development of the Strategic Defense Initiative, the very thing Gorbachev most wanted.

Of course, politicians manage to make it to the White House without possessing the actor’s chromosome. Such men may have abilities and score achievements. Yet they can find themselves in political hells caused, in part, by their emotional maladroitness. John Quincy Adams, historian, poet and translator, was one of the smartest Presidents ever, but he constantly knocked heads with a hostile Congress and then failed to be re-elected. Acting is a necessary tool, increasingly so in a democratic age when the audience is 300 million and candidates turn up regularly on TV talk shows. We, the voters and critics, must be responsible for deciding whether the performer is also wise and good.

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