Politics and Glamour

Teddy, JFK, and Obama

Forbes , August 24, 2009

Ted was the Kennedy who lived. He was, as a result, the Kennedy who wasn’t glamorous.

Jack is forever young and forever whatever his adoring fans imagine him to be: the president who would have gotten us out of Vietnam (rather than the one who got us in) or the original supply-sider (rather than a textbook Keynesian), the ideal combination of Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. We learned decades ago about Jack’s compulsive womanizing, but it is those selective images of the beautiful family that remain in collective memory. Life recorded no adulteries, no dirty tricks, no secret injections. The JFK of memory is a man of vigor, not an Addisons patient dependent on steroids, painkillers, and anti-spasmodics. He is the personification of political glamour.

Bobby, too, is glamorous–the tough guy turned symbol of youth and idealism, more photogenic than Gene McCarthy and more mythic. No one wonders how he would have held together the fractious Democratic Party of 1968, because he never had to. Like his brother, RFK is a persona, not a person, all hope and promise and projection.

In an age of cynicism and full disclosure, political glamour is a rarity–not because politicians lack good looks or wealth or celebrity but because we know too much about them. We too easily see their flaws and imagine even more than the flaws we do see.

Despite what the fashion-magazine cover blurbs suggest, glamour is not a matter of style but of psychology. It is an imaginative exchange, in which an audience projects its longings onto the glamorous object and sees in that person, place or thing the fulfillment of those desires. By binding image and desire, glamour gives us pleasure, even as it heightens our yearning.

That process requires distance and mystery, because glamour is always an illusion. The word originally referred to a literal magic spell making things appear better than they really were. To “glamorize” something means to remove distractions or flaws. Too much information breaks the spell.

And we had way too much information about Ted Kennedy. Unlike his brothers, he lived to become bloated and middle-aged and politically out-of-step with the times. He lived to lose–to Jimmy Carter, the antithesis of glamour–and to see Reaganism triumph. And, of course, he lived to experience a scandal, Chappaquiddick, that even the Kennedy family could not retouch away.

He also lived to legislate: to attach his name to specific proposals and specific causes over a long period of time. Instead of embodying whatever the audience might long for, Ted Kennedy defined an ideological position. To both allies and enemies, he represented big-government liberalism. He could be eloquent or vicious–his attack on Robert Bork fed much of today’s nasty partisanship–but he was not vague.

Ted Kennedy did not inspire projection. He made policy. As many obituaries noted, the least glamorous Kennedy brother had the greatest direct impact on American law.

His death comes amid a rare resurrection of political glamour. Like John Kennedy in 1960, as a candidate, Barack Obama combined youth, vigor, and good looks with the promise of political change–a promise that meant different things to different voters, depending on their aspirations. "Barack has become a kind of human Rorschach test,” a friend told Rolling Stone during the campaign. “People see in him what they want to see.” His glamour made it easy to imagine that a President Obama would dissolve differences, abolish hard choices, and achieve political consensus, or that he was a stealth candidate who would translate his vague platform into a mandate for whatever policies a particular voter happened to support.

As many commentators have noted, before and since his death, Ted Kennedy’s illness coincided with President Obama’s push for one of the senator's favorite, never-realized causes: universal health insurance. Such a vast extension of the welfare state is controversial. It would be costly, not only in dollars and cents but in institutional disruption and foregone medical innovations. Even for those who support it, a health care bill entails many unglamorous trade-offs and bureaucratic details.

Not surprisingly, then, as the health care debate has intensified, Obama’s own glamour has diminished. A Rorschach test, it turns out, cannot make policy. Eventually you have to break the spell.