Anne Hathaway and John McCain
There is a moral that associates itself with two stories in today’s news. It is that a movie star and a politician share in common the fact that they cannot hide what kind of people they are.
First, the movie star. Anne Hathaway, the star of teenage romantic fairytales who grew up to play the young thing in The Devil Wears Prada and is currently in Get Smart, went wild for an Italian guy who turned out to be a crook and People magazine claims that she is heartbroken. I can believe this because I don’t think most movie stars, including the best of them, ever depart very much from the people they really are. Katherine Hepburn was always Kate whether playing opposite Tracy or opposite Peter O’Toole in a costume drama. Barbara Stanwyck was always a hard woman; Jane Wyman was always endearing. We are all too familiar with our movie stars not to know when they are offering a performance that is phony because it does not convey a variation of some part of the true self we have constructed as movie goers out of their various performances.
Anne Hathaway has her own presence as a not very good looking woman (her eyes are too big; her brows too thick; her cheeks sunken; she has bags under her eyes; and her chest is dumpy) who nevertheless can dress up nice and so can make believe she is as glamorous as a movie star, which is what most of her roles are about. So I can see her as the girl with the good soul who gets betrayed by a cad. Life imitates art and all that. You can’t get away with being someone other than you are (so don’t go out with the glitterati unless you can pull it off). Not that any of this really matters, of course, except as gossip and as culture, and only some people take those categories as topics for analytic discourse rather than as something in which you merely engage, enjoying the juiciness of it all without thinking about why it is so juicy.
Now for the more serious but what is strictly speaking the parallel example of the politician. William Kristol reports in today’s Times that McCain is thinking about soon bringing back Mike Murphy to run his campaign. Murphy ran McCain’s 2000 campaign and has run successful races since then. McCain and Murphy are apparently reluctant to take the step because it will move McCain back into being a maverick Republican who tries to appeal to the center, the Reagan Democrats, and Independents rather than to the base of the Republican Party, which has no use for him anyway. The argument for doing so is that sticking with the ever shrinking base is a recipe for defeat and nothing McCain has done in the past few months has advanced his cause. It would, however, be difficult to buck the base, which is willing, according to today’s Washington Post, willing to stage a floor fight at the Minneapolis Convention over the platform. It is amazing how much leeway a faction of a Party has if it doesn’t care if its candidate loses. Whatever Hillary and Bill think of Obama, I think they really do want him to win. But the Republican ideologues would rather have their issues and preside over a diminished Party than have McCain in the White House because they don’t believe he would do what they want anyway.
Now my question is this. McCain has by now, in this campaign, so well established himself as a right winger on domestic issues and as a hawk on foreign policy that I don’t see very well what difference it would make for him to bring Murphy aboard. You have to run on what brought you to the dance. Otherwise, people won’t believe it is you, anymore than they would believe in Lucille Ball in a serious role. (Doris Day was one of the few screen actresses who could play against type. Remember her as Ruth Etting in Love Me or Leave Me? And then there was Bette Davis who could play anything and did.) What made McCain a maverick was that he vigorously spoke his mind, not that he was so out of step with Republican ideology, even back in 2000, and completely lost that outspokenness after the trauma, that year, of South Carolina. Would anyone believe a repackaging to a 2000 McCain? It would only accentuate that he is changeable not because conditions have changed but because his political interests have changed. Obama, on the other hand, can move to the center because he is just becoming more judicious, spelling out what “change” does and does not mean, which is that it does not mean nor ever has meant very much. Even when his talk was empty, he nevertheless conveyed a seriousmindedness that charmed the crowds away from Hillary. He conveys seriousmindedness even more now that he is qualifying his positions.
Exactly what message is Murphy supposed to massage? That McCain has found his 2000 voice? That campaign finance reform is still an issue, even though McCain-Feingold has been outflanked by events? That McCain’s hawkishness does or does not extend to Iran? That the virtues of the free market model McCain espouses without much understanding means allowing the auto industry and the airline industry to collapse? That might be alright to a Democrat like me who wants to dry out inefficiency and doesn’t want to subsidize obsolescent industries, but it will mean nothing at all to the Republican advocates of the free market model who take that to mean that there should be no end of assistance to heavily invested industries. They will have no use for a McCain who has allegiance only to a verbal understanding of the free market model.
What each candidate offers is a characterization of his and his opponent’s emotional makeup. I think McCain is in a position where a victory depends on character assassination, a weapon long in the Republican arsenal, rather than on clarifying or changing issues. He doesn’t need a Mike Murphy to try to put a good face on playing dirty, even if the assessment of character is the real basis on which voters make their choices. You don’t need to put a good face on mischaracterizing people if the effort proves successful, which is what happened with Willy Horton and Swiftboating. To grasp at Murphy is to grasp at straws.
So we have a real lesson here about public figures, whether they have political or movie star celebrity. They cannot betray themselves nor made to betray themselves because they really are what they do as candidates and people identify whatever they do as really them or as really not them, the politician playing contrary to type, as happened when the public took Gore as not being himself when he tried to add good humor (which he apparently does have) to his reputation as a wonk. It seemed contrived because it was a departure from the essence of him as that had come to be understood. In this light, anything anybody does can be taken as either his or her essence or as a pretense, and so we see in new events, in changes sometimes characterized as flipflops, what had always been there, though only sensed rather than recognized for what it was. So Bush being a moron was reinterpreted as his always having been a regular feller when it became clear that Gore was trying too hard to please. And I think what will arise out of McCain flipflopping one more time is not that he is a flipflopper; it is that he tries too hard to be a maverick when he once was, at least a little bit, a maverick, and people will not like that. It will come out as fake even if it is not, even if it is true that he is a bit, a teeny weeny bit, of a maverick. By such reasoning, movie stars and politicians fail or prosper.