Public Actors: Hillary Drank Two Glasses of Red Wine
Early in my ramble as a political reporter, I would come back to the office after a trip to, say, a presidential debate, or a convention, or a campaign event with candidate so-and-so. Steve Reiss, my sagacious editor at the Washington Post’s Style section, would always begin his debriefing with the same question: “What was it like?” It struck me as a strange construction. He would not say, “How was your trip?” or “What’d you get?” or—in the case of an encounter with a profile subject—“What was he/she like?” He always said, “What was it like,” and after a while I took the “it” to incorporate the whole unnatural experience that these subjects endure on their daily high wires. In halting responses, I would share with Steve little stories and impressions and off-color details about my expeditions: how, say, John Edwards walked like a duck, or that Dick Cheney had no idea who John Travolta was, or that Nancy Pelosi had never heard of curly fries.
Steve later observed that very little of what I shared with him in his office would ever wind up in my stories. Quite often there was good reason: ground rules (they were off the record), or good taste (former POW John McCain telling me a joke about prison rape), or the fact that Mike Huckabee’s scatological humor was ill-suited to a profile pegged to his new diet and nutrition book. But a lot of the good material also evaded print for bad reasons. It didn’t fit, in part because I was too attentive to the banal conventions of so much political reporting; I was too conscientious about including talking points, pro forma quotes from “experts” and the requisite “others disagree” paragraphs (on the one hand, on the other hand, etc.). Steve urged me to listen to the stories I was telling my friends, was telling him, and was myself chuckling at, and then to liberate them into print as often as I could.
In the course of these conversations, I came to recognize that Steve was highlighting for me a basic dichotomy between what a reporter sees and what a reporter knows. The better the reporter becomes at integrating these, the more illuminating his material becomes. Whether he meant it or not, Steve was getting me to train my eyes and ears on the things that were revelatory rather than, say, dutiful (or merely quotable). I started listening differently to the people I was talking to, both in real time and on tape. Did Chris Matthews really just say that thing about Koreans? Did Haley Barbour just pat his wife on the ass as she walked by him? Did Teresa Heinz Kerry just snap at her husband again? I came to notice how nervous, glib, or confident they sounded; and I also learned how to interact with these people in a way that best elicited more authentic expressions. Over time, and this took years, I developed better senses to go to battle with. I also learned that a key to writing about people in public life is recognizing another core dichotomy: the one between what a subject wants to project to the world (and devotes a great deal of time, energy, and manpower to) and who they truly are. Clearly for the writer, the idea is to convey as much of the latter as possible and as little of the spin and bullshit of the former. For the public actor, the relentless challenge they endure in trying to manage that gap—what to reveal and what to withhold, what to emphasize and what to obscure—is a wholly consuming experience. In many ways, it defines their realities. Steve would always ask me another question, too. “What’s different about them?” By “them” he meant the public actors. They were often people of great renown and acclaim. They were recognized around town, usually Washington, DC, in those double-take instances that a public actor becomes an actual person before you. (Hey, isn’t that . . . ? It looks like Newt Gingrich. Or an overgrown kid playing Newt for Halloween? Yes, it is the real Newt—an actual sighting, just a few seconds ago, here at the Starbucks near the United Airlines counter at Reagan National Airport. And he is standing with someone who has the same silver-haired helmet on her head as his wife Callista does. So it must be Newt!)
Public actors carry themselves with a jumpy expectation that they are being studied at all times. Often they are. They have a special sense that others are squinting in their directions. Their voices assume a deeper tone as if they are always speaking into a microphone. (“It’s good to see you again, Wolf.”) They walk faster. Their assistant will follow up with you later. They know the names of the makeup ladies and the valet guys and where the Snickers bars are kept in the green rooms.
“The rich are different from you and me,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote memorably in The Great Gatsby. And so are the citizens of the green room. After a while, they acquire a shiny otherness—a stately gaze, a sweeping pace of movement, and sometimes comet trails of entourages. They navigate life in a perpetual “on” state, as naturally as a trout inhabits a stream. And they sweep into green rooms, the safe habitat where upcoming TV guests, debate participants, and various lofty haircuts get touched up, miked, and fed before their spotlight turns. Political green rooms in particular embody the unreality these paragons endure. Unlike, say, a diva’s green room on Broadway or Van Halen’s on tour (sans brown M&M’s), political green rooms don’t guarantee privacy. In joint appearances or debate settings, combatants are often joined, awkwardly, in rich anthropological scenarios: like Howard Dean, John Edwards, and John Kerry jockeying in line outside a public backstage men’s room before a Democratic presidential debate. They are suspicious rivals (Dean eyeing Kerry for allegedly cutting him in line), but they also, clearly, all belong.
Not everyone in a green room is a legal citizen of the place. It takes repeated exposure and a quiet sense developed over time. That is the vague path to citizenship in the green room, which becomes a proxy for being an accredited citizen of public life. You are seen around. Tip O’Neill—a Golden Green-Room God back in his day—used to diminish certain past-primers by saying, “You know, you never see him around anymore.” What could be more dismissive? Are they even still alive?
Full citizenship in the green room has both advantages and killer burdens. “There is relentless scrutiny that now stalks not only people in politics but people in all kinds of public arenas,” Hillary Clinton said in an April 2014 speech in Portland, Oregon. “And it gives you a sense of being kind of dehumanized.” I was struck by her word choices, some of them jarring: “stalked” and, especially, “dehumanized.”
I think of those studies about the effect of life in prison; inmates who are brutalized or placed in solitary confinement. “Dehumanized” gets thrown around in those contexts, too. What is it like to be a human object in a dehumanizing machine? To be a prisoner in makeup?
Copyright 2014 by Mark Leibovich. Reprinted with permission from Blue Rider Press.