Richard Reeves

Politicians Are Different From You and Me

LOS ANGELES -- The current issue of The Week magazine certainly has the right headline: "Hey, Look at Me!"

But the picture was not of Congressman Anthony Weiner and his little package. The picture below the headline showed Sarah Palin and her great big Harley Davidson. She is fully clothed, wrapped in leather actually.

"Hey, Look at Me" could be the motto of modern politics, particularly male politicians. The name of the game has always been seduction of individuals, of crowds. That is what politicians do. I've traveled with a lot of them long enough to know that unlike the characters in "Toy Story," they only come alive as the crowd gathers. That is the nature of their business, then they withdraw, often in silence, to prepare for the next encounter.

Under our system, politicians are not chosen by "the people" or the "bosses" or the media. They are self-selected. John F. Kennedy was really the first of the self-selected. Son of a movie mogul, he understood the power of flesh and he used it every chance he got. If you remember, one of his standard campaign photos was a picture of himself, bare-chested at the wheel of his patrol boat, PT-109. His opponent in 1960, Richard Nixon, didn't get it; another naval lieutenant, Nixon's war picture was him standing at attention in his dress blues.

But Kennedy did not stop there. One picture that sticks with me is him in a steaming bath -- trying to soften his constant back pain. Sitting around him, on the floor, on the toilet, leaning against the moist wall were the chosen few, wearing suits and ties. These were business meetings, and whatever one thinks of Freud, Kennedy the naked chief was exercising total power over his sweaty minions.

JFK also changed shirts five times a day to keep looking fresh. When he changed, he would simply hold out his arms while an aide or whoever happened to be in a room with him, took off the old and carefully put on the new. (I more than once watched his brother Robert do the same thing.)

Well, they had bodies, the young brothers. Lyndon Johnson, no great body his, took the Kennedy trick a step further, holding meetings while he was doing other business on the toilet. The euphemism for that is "earthy." And then, of course, there was the famous photo of LBJ pulling up his shirt to show reporters the scars after a gall bladder operation.

Next, Richard Nixon was a more modest man, but would sometimes change clothes for evening functions as he gave orders to trusted aides. Then there was Jimmy Carter, running in a race in what could pass as underwear and collapsing in front of the whole world.

When speculation about his age and fitness bothered Ronald Reagan, he climbed a tree on his ranch, bare-chested with a chainsaw in hand for photographs published in Parade magazine. As for Bill Clinton, we know he had selected showings of his body, or parts of it.

"Hey, Look at Me!" Now, two young congressmen have tried "limited hangout." It hasn't worked so well for them. Chris Lee had to quit a couple of weeks ago. Weiner may have to, as well. The lesson here seems to be that only the emperor can go around with no clothes.

While it's creepy to imagine our highest officials photographing themselves for Twitter and all to see, this is not going to end. It is a just an electronic upgrade of politicians --a senator from the west and a mayor from the east come to mind -- sending aides out into the crowd to ask a comely young thing if she had any plans after the show.

Our politicians are different from you and me. Self-selected men and women. Risk-takers who need adulation and conquest to keep them going. Life is a race against boredom, and they are more than willing to take the risks of being caught for the thrill of catching.

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