Politics of Representation

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The 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s death is occasion to reflect on his parallel history, the speculative perfection that tends to be ascribed to martyrs whose life doesn’t linger to disprove the theories.

In a cogent new essay analyzing the free-floating surface that hovers between our conception of JFK and the reality he lived (and was headed for had he lived longer), Virginia Postrel details the perpetually suspended state of utopia that a “Camelot” fantasy involves. This is a matter of glamour, the watchword of her newest book and of course, in knights-and-dragons folklore, the word for a spell that projects some illusory nature over a more complex concept.

Postrel notes that the most glamorous figure to emerge in U.S. politics since JFK was Obama, but that Obama is now living out the second-act disillusionment that awaits most two-term presidents seemingly inevitably. But some spells are stronger than others.

Kennedy’s clung through a tenure which started with an elective military fiasco (the Bay of Pigs invasion) and the magic stuck with his brother Ted through a long career in which Ted’s profound questions of character were also well-publicized from the start; Obama’s spell began to wear off soon after he took office, but may have found new ways to survive.

Postrel notes the magical-thinking by which “different people projected different, often contradictory ideals onto” Obama (in the same way that both hawks and doves claim JFK’s tough talk and international outreach), and it’s interesting to remember that the other recent political figure this most applies to was the earlier model of Obama’s first national opponent, John McCain — no one’s idea of glamorous, yet the object of intense optimism and assumed agreement projected by conservatives, libertarians and liberals alike when he ran in 2000.

The essence of politicians like Ronald Reagan and FDR (despite or because of the volatile moments they emerge at) is to offer reassurance, while the essence of ones like JFK, and Obama in 2008, and McCain in 2000 (all relatively stagnant moments), is to promise risk. Each of the latter three did so at a time when the national mood felt ready for it. Still, JFK (for all his unfinished business and instinctual caution) remains the most recent of them to actually try to deliver. McCain morphed into an establishment candidate in his attempt to overcome Obama, who won and then swiftly backtracked on every transformation from his predecessor that had been promised. And indeed well exceeded that predecessor’s policies, with a vast and unaccountable apparatus of indiscriminate surveillance and a foreign policy of automated, mass assassination. He then won reelection, with most of this already plain to see (in kind if not in scope), because his opponent signified the type of step back that seemed more profound to most Americans.

Mitt Romney was disliked by his own base but committed to their main interests, which is what conservative voters fall back on; Obama ran against his own base but symbolized their visions for an engaged central government and a culturally inclusive national family, which is what liberal voters cling to. In short, Romney’s voters stuck with him because of their sense of who he truly represented, while Obama’s stayed with him because of what they feel he represents.

Postrel points out the would-have-been factor in popular history’s less kind memory of Lyndon Johnson, who was the one to actually accomplish what JFK is credited with setting in motion (like the Civil Rights Act). Surely, it’s thought, JFK would have brought about more utopian reforms, in a less strife-torn country. Johnson may have been the least risk-averse American president since Lincoln, and his “unglamorous”ness, as Postrel rightly describes it, may owe as much to the unattractive realities that risk runs into as it does to his lack of Kennedy’s glossy aura. Johnson gambled on equality and the nation won; he gambled on Vietnam and not much of anyone feels grateful for it, which spelled both his political career’s and his posterity’s doom.

Risk, in the popular affection, is not rewarded. The allure of Camelot, as wisely diagramed in Postrel’s piece, is that it is a golden age forever set apart from daily life and thus imagined to be reachable because of its very remoteness. And it could be that we prefer it to stay remote. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of the long arc of history bending toward justice, but we’re a generation that fetishizes the journey. Politicians who risk and live are rejected like LBJ; those who risk and die too soon are deified like Lincoln and JFK; Obama is the beneficiary of a new conceptual phenomenon of the infinite-journey society: still in office, imperviously set for a long life, he is indefinitely elevated in his supporters’ eyes not by a vision of what would have been but a remembrance of what could have been.

Obama embodies a promise kept perpetual by its deferment; he ritualistically campaigns to supportive crowds while staying removed from a reckoning with day-to-day (unglamorous) political exchange, and is indulged due to the immobile stance of his opponents, but also indulges it himself. It’s almost as if a contemporary politician can be rewarded with loyalty for exactly as long as the intimidating uncertainties of actual change are held off. By that measure, Obama keeps the dream alive. And meanwhile, in the personal sphere we believe we have control over as opposed to the political arena we feel we can’t affect, Obama still represents an alternative to the constraining paternal monocultural model that Romney scared enough people with — a triumph of lifestyle, in the several senses our consumer democracy offers, over actual political life.

It’s easy to become pure style when your material form and its potential failings are past. But even concurrently with present political icons’ falls from grace, style can stay alive and well.

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