In the wake of that mighty capsizing, I refer to President Bush’s performance at the first presidential debate, a certain television commentator remarked that Kerry had altogether seemed more “presidential” in his estimate during the interval of the debate. It is worthwhile, I think, to plumb the meaning and significance of this latter golden word (“presidential”), to bring to surface the body of tropes and topoi in which such a label is entangled.

Clearly the adjectival scope of the “presidential” encloses that which is reminiscent or evocative of the office of the President, but if this tautology is to be given color, it is best not to stop here. If a candidate is to appear presidential, in what historical mirror should he aim to plant his image? Should he style himself after Washington’s greatness borne of restraint, Lincoln’s anxious gravity, or Taft’s immovability? Will the buoyant energy of a Kennedy or the Manichean passion of a Reagan merit his emulation? Jesus of the revolution or Moses of the constitution?

A constellation of associated words circulates in the orbit of this seemingly nebulous descriptor. Somewhat vague, somewhat stuffy, and very political, words such as “will,” “resolve,” “firm,” and “character” make frequent appearances both in the campaign rhetoric and in our own attempts to articulate what is “presidential.” To be presidential evidently connotes a certain gravity of being and force of presence, a certain dignity and bearing, a mode of action which neither quakes at nor eludes the magnitude of a crisis.

The Focus of/on the Individual

The presidential race itself serves as the material focus of broader debates, questions, and struggles of value and policy. It temporarily localizes, compresses, and anchors the entire range of political discourse along a single line of conflict and point of contention. The race quickly assumes the form of a confrontation between two idealized individuals; the outer clash of the race, that which concerns the candidates themselves, plays off the inner confrontation, that which concerns the ideals and values each candidate bears as aegis. Nietzsche once wrote that in place of a “great man” he had found simply “an actor and an ideal.” Nietzsche’s pithy observation is still true today: each presidential campaign is the composite of an actor and an ideal. In the battle of the idealized image of candidacy, there are two primary strategies: either show the folly and foolery of a particular set of ideals, or attack the candidate himself as a just and true representative of his claimed ideals. Each candidate is aggressively portrayed (by himself and others) as embodying the essential values and beliefs of his political party, and his candidacy becomes by extension a total idealized package proffered to the nation for its elective consumption. The pattern of the candidate’s life, the compass of his opinions, the emotive palette of his thought and diction – his candidacy is the synthesis of these elements; it is the total portrait of a potential American leader and the total landscape of a potential America. The old saying that a good salesman “sells himself, not the product” reaches its zenith of applicability in the context of the presidential race. For voters the race constitutes not only a pragmatic choice through which one alters the likelihood of certain policies being enacted, continued, or ceased, but also a referendum on an evolving idea of Americanness itself.

Gravitas et Honestas

That a candidate be perceived as honest is essential; the word connotes both the honestas (honor, integrity and purity of character) of Republican Rome and the distantly Puritanical moral simplicity of the American countryside (“Honest Abe”). That a candidate be possessed of a certain gravitas in the eyes of the nation – this, also, is essential. This is why Dean’s can-do, impulsive style doomed him in the end so unequivocally; that infelicitous yowl of his did not, as many claimed, betoken a mental instability so much as it indicated and confirmed an essential and unfortunate lack of dignity; he failed to demonstrate the degree of propriety demanded by the occasion.

The Blouse and the Cherry-Tree

Perhaps it was the very cheapness and tawdriness of Clinton’s offense which excited the ire of so many. Neither the fact of presidential misconduct (sadly a familiar occurrence) nor the nature of his peccadillo is what so galls, but rather it is the taint of so unbecoming, so unpresidential, a sin. Nixon at least had the sense to sin on a truly presidential scale – that is, flagrantly, brazenly, and systematically. As if some father stole candy from his infant son – it’s not the loss of the candy that we find shocking (the loss is trivial), but rather the violation of relationship implied. America spills few tears over cherry-trees because the crime is so clearly committed and purely repented. That apocryphal episode of Washington’s life possesses a certain aesthetic simplicity and satisfaction; in the beginning of his life he finds himself in a dark wood of cherry-trees, tarries one leering moment, then finds and pursues the straight way to which he unerringly cleaves hereafter. There is no drawn-out guilt, no wavering or quibbling. The pain of his contrition and repentance is instantaneous, definitive, and irreversible. “I cannot tell a lie.” The words seem to march forth.

“A tailor made thee.”

Kent’s barb of a remark in King Lear rears up as blanket indictment of the America political system of candidacy. It inevitably happens that each candidate is meticulously groomed, his biography woven into some inspiring narrative of a bountiful success married to a heroic integrity, and every aspect of his candidacy in general tailored to maximum effect and resonance with voters. (In the case of Senator Kerry, there is substantial evidence to suggest that he has lived the greater part of his life according to some grand plan of future candidacy.) Here lies the crux of modern politics: people find such gaming of the system distasteful (hence the present force of Kent’s insult); the very flexibility, ductility, and malleability that the contest demands and naturally selects as advantageous become in turn a source of vulnerability and political weakness. Pliability, a must-have attribute, becomes a liability if conspicuous. A paradoxical state of events ensues – each politician continually attacks the other for being too good a politician. Success in politics is to exercises a maximum of mobility while affecting the appearance of an absolute stability.

The Honesty of Achilles

“I hate by the gates of Hell that man who says one thing yet holds another in his heart.” So spoke Achilles, and such a statement summarizes his entire person. One must marvel at the sheer contempt evinced – contempt for all “political” complexities and exigencies, contempt for everything indirect and manipulative as opposed to the direct and forceful, contempt for anything which dare not stand as itself, a chafing at the basic indignity of mask, palliative, or intermediating effect, – all this uttered by a simple soul bred to a warrior ethos. Such Achillean sentiment finds modern purchase. The worst (and most frequent) crime in politics is to simulate. Only the sin of hypocrisy, it seems, truly stinks all the way to high heaven.

Rhetoric, Rhetoric, Rhetoric

Both candidates liberally sprinkle their language and literature with terms and code-words from the constellation of the presidential (“resolve,” “will,” “determined,” “character”). The Bush administration has turned the admittedly hoary phrase “to stay the course” (whatever that means) into some sort of bizarre mantra of arbitrary perseverance. Candidates also try to infect their opponent’s image with memes counter to the ideals of the presidential (“deceit,” “tricky,” “fuzzy”). These consistent patterns of utterance combine to form a passive rhetoric of insinuation and self-aggrandizement, a technique which often proves just as effective as an active rhetoric of accusation, calumniation, or explicit self-laudation – the former influencing the total image of a candidate and the latter performing the tactical sallies of the campaign.

The word “flip-flop” is masterfully chosen – a scalpel of a word! Its aural punch is exactly suited to its semantic design. The base-unit “flip” implies just the right flippancy and carelessness. Most reduplicated slang conveys iteration and/or uncertainty within a lightness of tone (e.g., shilly-shally, wishy-washy); such connotation is perfectly opposed to the presidential. The rhythmic plosives of the p’s impart a nice pop to the pronunciation. In sum, the effect is devastating and must be dealt with. Witness the almost unabated attempt of the Republican Party to pin this name on Kerry and Kerry’s desperate resistance (“No more labels”).

Agon Logon

The modern Presidential debate is not a debate in the sense of a substantive, reasoned, and impassioned verbal exchange between rival ideologies, though it mimics and moves parallel to such an idea. Rather it harks back to the Greek tradition of agon logon, “contest of speeches,” and this paradigm goes much farther in explaining the quadrennial phenomenon we have come to know so well.

The debate is a total contest of physical, verbal, and mental presence – it more than any other place approximates the presidential arena, and it is here that each candidate fully becomes himself in the corrective and fructifying gaze of television. Each candidate turns every resource he possesses to the urgent task of persuasion: the audience attunes itself (consciously or unconsciously) to the rhetorical flow of each response, the degree of detectible extemporaneity, the tempo, timbre, and tone of each voice, the way each candidate breathes, the pattern and range of diction exhibited, any idiosyncrasies or emphases of pronunciations, the language of the physiognomy, the spotted lights of complexion, the faint suffusions and half-blushes, the play of facial muscles and ocular activity, the way the head is held, the tension of the neck and shoulder, the attitude and message of posture, the energy and types of gesture. Not to mention the clothes – specifically the interplay of colors, lines, textures, the very shape of the candidate. What makes a particular tie presidential? During one of the Democratic primary debates, it was interesting to note the various uniforms of the candidates (if my memory serves, Dean: white dress shirt, red tie, Edwards: long-sleeve with sleeves rolled-up, Kucinich: some sort of black apparel, Sharpton: ridiculous suit). If the debate involves movement, how does he walk with respect to gait, stride-length, and sway?

The Armor of Achilles

President Bush and Senator Kerry can be said in a strained sense to occupy opposite poles on a dialectic of political expediency and adaptability – Bush proudly (and dumbly) steadfast with all the “resolve” and “character” of a donkey, and Kerry the agile shape-shifting dancer, apparently ready to recast his life and recode his views to whatever constituency he finds himself before. It is well that Senator Kerry has no legislative record of substance. Any such concrete facts of history would no doubt infringe upon his lifelong Gatsby-esque project of the self. Bush can’t change, and Kerry can’t stay the same; the pair seems to constitute a sort of vulgar illustration of Parmenides and Heraclitus in action.

After Achilles, whose truth-loving spirit was so pointedly invoked in the preceding paragraphs, came to lie dead on the plain of Troy, a dispute arose over who should come into possession of his magnificent armor: Ajax, the prototypical warrior long on brawn but short on brains, or Odysseus, the prototypical man of wits whose over-crafty nature would secure him the occasional Roman censure. The two men had a grand agon logon before the entire Greek camp. Odysseus naturally won, but the ancients always treated his victory rather ambivalently, as something perhaps not entirely noble. In a sense, neither was worthy to inherit the armor. Yet we behold a similar scene today as our own latter-day Ajax and Odysseus, a resolute dummy and a crafty chameleon, unfortunately and comically all too real, wrangle over the electoral armor of a mythical Achilles.