One of the joys of being obscure is having no reputation, one way or the other. There’s nothing to live up to, and not much to live down – so when you do something good people are usually pleasantly surprised. They didn’t know you had it in you. And when you screw up they cut you some slack – you may actually screw up all the time, but they don’t know that. All is forgiven – or most all.
Of course none of that is really true – everyone has a reputation, however limited. Yours probably started in the fifth grade – you might have been the brainy nerd or the bully or the jock, or if a girl, the coy tease or the shy frump or the tomboy. And you have probably spent most of the rest of your life in the role assigned to you – no point in arguing with public opinion. If everyone sees you in one particular way there might be something to that.
So your reputation, a big part of your very self, is handed to you – and you accept it. Hey – what do you know? Everyone has agreed on what you are, so you can hardly argue. Only the driven and the contrary ever attempt to build something new – a specific reputation and a public persona that is exactly what they want it to be, something awesome that no one expected. Of course politicians are like that – McCain, the straight-talking maverick, and Obama, the cool and unflappable dude, so thoughtful, reasonable and polite – willing to listen to anyone and think about what they say. And there was Hillary Clinton, tough as nails and fiercely compassionate (maybe). These are inventions, or if part of a base personality, enhanced and improved and carefully marketed projections of what each wants to amplify.
Of course you had your chances – you went off to college where no one knew you, or started a new job in a new city with all new people around you. You could have tried out a new you, but somehow you ended up reverting to type. Building the new person that you think you want to be is hard work, and there are too many ways to screw it up. Why bother, unless you’re in public life? Sure you wanted to be suave and cool – you’re generation’s Steve McQueen – but that project was, as you quickly realized, doomed to failure. Hell, life is hard enough as it is, without taking on the job of becoming something else, or at least a goosed-up, chrome-plated, purified version of your former self.
And that’s the real joy of obscurity – you can just be. Unlike a public figure, unlike one of these politicians, you can relax. There is no need to tend the image. What you see is what you get.
Still, no one wants whatever reputation they have sullied. Your reputation matters – or so says the nasty, sly villain, Iago, in the third act of Othello:
Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.
There you have it. Iago drives his boss Othello to madness, and to murder, by telling Othello that he should protect his good name, his sterling reputation, as that matters far more than anything else – and certainly far more than that slut, Desdemona. And Othello buys it, hook, line and sinker. He is, above all else, a public figure.
As it was in the Shakespeare play, so it is now. As a rule, each political campaign now has its Iago, or a staff of them. They advise. Their job is to protect your reputation, the persona you and your marketing people have constructed, and destroy the other guy’s – you want to filch the other guy’s good name. That’s how the game is played. Forget the policy crap and all the rest – protect the immediate jewel.
But sometimes there’s a problem with filching the other guy’s good name. In Slate’s Press Box column see Jack Shafer with The Untouchable, an examination of “why nothing the press throws at Obama sticks.”
Obama is clever:
You’re welcome to believe otherwise, but I don’t think the press has gone in the tank for Barack Obama.
As long ago as March, the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz demolished charges that the press was soft on Obama by cataloging the tough pieces published by reporters exhuming the candidate’s past: his financial relationship with friend and fundraiser Antoin “Tony” Rezko, who is now a convicted felon; his friendship with former Weather Undergrounder William Ayers; his casting of 130 “present” votes as an Illinois legislator; his nuclear energy compromise in the U.S. Senate, said to benefit a contributor; incendiary comments made by his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright; and more.
The Howard Kurtz catalog is here – all this should have sunk the man. And McCain’s campaign is running hundreds of television spots, at least out here, saying Obama is a flip-flopper. Those of us who will probably vote for him shrug, but this may work with those on the fence – or not. Shafer points to this – the New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg noting that the big papers are “assembling quite a list of matters on which the candidate has ‘changed his position,’ including Iraq, abortion rights, federal aid to faith-based social services, capital punishment, gun control, public financing of campaigns, and wiretapping.” All of this should sink Obama. But Shafer says that is not happening, and it’s not just the press that is getting nowhere.
Hillary Clinton hurled rocks, knives, and acid at her rival even before the primaries (see this Jake Tapper piece from ABC News) and later upped the ante in desperation. She claimed that he was unprepared to serve as commander in chief and accused him of insulting gun owners and the religiously faithful. The eleventh-hour tactics may have won Clinton votes, but they failed to undermine Obama.
So what’s the problem here? What does an Iago have to do?
The problem seems to be in the persona Obama has created:
You could call Obama the Teflon-coated candidate, but this would miss the fact that his slickness goes all the way to the core. What has gone unexplored until now is this: How did Barack Obama achieve superslipperiness without becoming greasy?
In a 2006 profile in Men’s Vogue by Jacob Weisberg, Obama acknowledges that every politician, himself included, has “some of that reptilian side to him.” To win public office, a politician must power his scales, trim his nails, and tame his swinging tail. It’s called persona-building, and everybody does it. But just compare the persona Obama crafted to the one crafted by Mitt Romney. The Romney bodysuit is all snapping teeth and empty glad-handing. Obama, on the other hand, projects a remarkably appealing and authentic character. He’s the koala of iguanas.
Shafer looks at how Obama built his untouchable persona:
Whether by design or by chance (I’d say design), Obama took possession of this public face with the publication of his confessional memoir, Dreams From My Father, in 1995. Written before he ran for office, Dreams shrewdly moots his youthful drug use as “some bad decisions.” When the New York Times re-reported this period in Obama’s life for a Feb. 9, 2008, piece, it probably expected to uncover spectacular dope-crazed tales. Instead it found evidence that Obama’s memoir might have exaggerated his drug use. An Obama friend – now a fundraiser – tells the Times, Obama was somewhat of a reticent drug user: “If someone passed him a joint, he would take a drag. We’d smoke or have one extra beer, but he would not even do as much as other people on campus. … He was not even close to being a party animal.”
In short, Obama inoculated himself – let some bad things out, but add enough detail to deflect real badness, or whatever. It was a preemptive strike.
And Shafer notes Obama also has a way of just not taking the bait now:
When he does address scandalous material, he generally does so to his advantage. In June, when the Web and cable news advanced false rumors that Michelle Obama had called white people “whitey” on a videotape, Obama squelched the gossip with a denial and, as Ben Smith of Politico reported, put the press on notice by questioning the appropriateness of the question. Smears undermine a politician only when they appeal to voters’ pre-existing idea of what sort of person a politician is. Seeing as the pre-existing idea of Obama is so positive, the Obama-haters have had trouble portraying him either as a literal bomb thrower, like William Ayers, or a figurative one, like the Rev. Wright. When the smear artists dress him up as a radical or as “madrassa”-educated, the ploys only backfire.
So, if there is no pre-existing idea of what sort of person Obama is, you can turn the whole question, whatever it is, back on the questioner. Although Shafer doesn’t even hint at it, McCain’s problem obviously is his own reputation – the pre-existing idea of what sort of person McCain is – and that’s out there, and has been out there for more than a decade. McCain has to live with it.
A blank slate is always better:
Like Chief Justice John Roberts, Obama has constructed a professional résumé low on embarrassing material. In this regard, Obama’s lack of legislative accomplishment is a genuine achievement. They can’t hit you where they can’t find you, which is a gambit that worked for Roberts in his confirmation hearings. Separating the real Obama from the persona is probably impossible, as Ryan Lizza hints in The New Yorker, where he writes:
[Obama] campaigns on reforming a broken political process, yet he has always played politics by the rules as they exist, not as he would like them to exist. He runs as an outsider, but he has succeeded by mastering the inside game. He is ideologically a man of the left, but at times he has been genuinely deferential to core philosophical insights of the right.
So you baffle the press, and keep them at a distance – and no one touches you. They don’t know what to make of you.
Shafer thinks this is self-limiting in the general election – this is not like the primaries and people want answers. And the press may start calling Obama a liar. And sometimes he may lie. The question is whether calling him out will even work, or just get turned back on the questioners.
Whoever is the Iago in the McCain campaign needs to think through how to deal with all this. How do you destroy a guy’s reputation when he doesn’t have one, and he just is? Worse yet, the guy is just out there – listening and being thoughtful and when someone attacks, says yes, you have a good point, but we also could look at it this way. It’s a kind of public obscurity – if there is such a thing. And that’s something new. It hardly seems fair. There’s nothing to work with.
And McCain has another problem, also regarding reputation. Also in Slate, John Dickerson covers that in Party Crasher – What should McCain do with Bush at the convention?
The last time a two-term president spoke at his party’s nominating convention, he sparked a grand celebration. It was 2000. Bill Clinton was introduced, and the Democrats gathered in Los Angeles went nuts. Instead of taking the stage, though, Clinton first showed up on enormous screens. For the next 30 seconds, the crowd watched as he walked the narrow cinderblock hallway to the podium. By the time he arrived, the popcorn had spilled, the funny hats were askew, and the entire arena was in a deep frenzy.
This happy convergence is not likely to repeat itself when George Bush speaks at the Republican convention in St. Paul, Minn., in September. With approval ratings in the high 20s, Bush has a standing more than 20 points lower than Clinton’s at the time of his saunter. In 2000, 51 percent of the country said America was on the right track. Now 13 percent does. The Obama campaign tries to take advantage of the ill will by claiming that John McCain represents merely a third Bush term and by linking the two in an ad.
It’s working. In recent polls, the majority of respondents believe that McCain, as president, would continue Mr. Bush’s policies in Iraq and on the economy. How much of a liability is Bush? One McCain aide refers to him as kryptonite. The irony, says a McCain supporter, is that Bush could end up beating McCain on both his runs for the presidency.
But McCain has to have Bush speak. Dickerson notes that when he asked GOP veterans whether there was any way to minimize the damage for McCain, their first reaction was to laugh.
Dickerson also notes how delicate this all is:
The main trick at a convention, which every campaign faces, is to present a candidate to a general-election audience – which usually means appealing to the political center – at a gathering of his most partisan supporters, who flock to the convention center to cheer loudly for his most conservative appeals. It would be easier for candidates if their conventions were held the day after they grabbed the nomination. Then they could wave to the base and go on to make their move to the middle uninterrupted.
McCain faces an acute version of the usual dilemma. Polls in recent days suggest that disaffected Republicans are coming home to his campaign (or, given his rocky relationship with the party, saying hi for the first time). McCain doesn’t want to alienate those party faithful who may not be thrilled with the president but who also don’t want to see him insulted. But he also has to show that he’s a different kind of Republican in a year when the party brand is so damaged that 10 of the 12 Republicans running in the most competitive Senate races this fall are either skipping the convention or have not decided whether to attend.
So other than crack grim jokes, what should McCain do to limit the damage Bush could do to him?
Dickerson has some suggestions – trot out the first Bush too, and Barbara, but that has its downsides. Dickerson mentions how the first Bush lost badly by being out of touch with the economy, but he doesn’t even mention family dynamics. The second Bush might balk at the whole idea – his relationship with his father always has been, and still is, by all accounts, dicey.
There’s the idea that Bush, the younger, could give a speech as a character witness of some sort for McCain – but that’s tricky too. The whole idea has been some differentiation between the two. Or they actually could talk about their conflicts and let it all hang out, but that seems unwise. Where does that lead? Dickerson imagines how that might end:
Then they could kiss and make up over their big area of agreement – the latest military strategy in Iraq, which is increasingly viewed as successful. This will never happen.
There’s no way out of this one.
One of the oldest phrases in our language comes to mind. You see someone walking toward you, a total asshole who you and everyone else knows doesn’t have a clue, and you just know he’s going to say something really stupid, so you nudge the guy next to with your elbow and snigger – “his reputation precedes him.”
Obama seems to have solved the problem. Don’t have a reputation.
Damn, he’s good.