Party of One: Yours Sincerely

One of the stoutly held myths of our day is that the television camera reveals true character. Like everyone else, I am a captive of this foolish notion: one can’t help it, for the eye trusts what it sees, though it suspiciously screens what it reads, just as the ear filters, edits, and questions what it hears. This is why television is at once so powerful and so unpredictable a medium; the observing eye is mindless and restless, and, if it has nothing else more interesting to look at on the screen, will begin noticing a man’s lapel width, or his nose, or the awkwardness of his hands. In the circumstances, viewers all think of themselves as excellent students of character who can spot the slightest trace of insincerity. But that is nonsense.

True, when the man on the street is suddenly on camera and asked his opinion, he can’t help but blurt out what he feels. But a politician must always anticipate what he might say if asked; we are thus judging a performance. “The best television performers among politicians,” says Bryan Magee, a British member of Parliament, “are the skilful phonies.” Magee wrote recently in The Listener:

Truly outstanding politicians during the television era have been hopeless at it. Churchill would have nothing to do with it, and. so far as I know, he never set foot in a studio. Aneurin Bevan was frightened of it, and refused all but a few of the invitations which showered upon him. And when he did appear— this magic-tongued man, streaked with genius, whose personality would leap off the platform at a live audience—his image stuck to the screen like cold cod. . . .

Meanwhile, people who in real life are the most effortlessly entertaining and brilliant of talkers — as are, for instance. Isaiah Berlin and Anthony Quinton—are but indifferent television performers. People who are relaxedly themselves do not have the artificial, actor-like projection of TV personalities—and remember, unlike a live audience, the camera is not a human observer, so people projecting themselves through it are doing so through a dead piece of machinery: a bizarre talent, indeed.

Among major American political figures. I think only John Kennedy mastered television as Roosevelt mastered radio. You hear it said that a person can’t go anywhere in politics these days without being good on television, but how then explain the political successes of Johnson and Nixon, who on screen repelled more frequently than they seduced?

Politicians live by believability of manner and plausibility of explanation. Nixon labored, even overlabored, at plausibility of explanation, and thus always sounded better on radio, yvhere with resonant voice he could conceal a furtiveness of manner so evident on screen. (I once mentioned to Kennedy, the only time I ever talked to him in the Oval Office, my belief that Nixon came across confidently in the Nixon-Kennedy debates only on the split-screen occasion when they spoke from separate studios. In person, did Kennedy have some kind of physical whammy over Nixon? He did, Kennedy agreed with a wide crockery smile.)

As an actor, Gerald Ford has only one part, but he has been playing it most of his life and has made it his own. He is pretty good at looking you in the eye, seeming straightforward, unruffled, and decent, hut as John Hersey observed, after studying him at close quarters for a week, you get the same Ford expression in response to either a trivial question or a serious one. Ford also knows how to return a muzzy answer to a clear question, so that watching him being interviewed is like watching second-rate tennis, in which a listless rally goes on interminably because a player is content just to get the ball back over the net, and is not willing to chance a killing return.

Of course Presidents now come equipped with gag writers who provide one-liners to fend off awkward press conference questions, and aides who try out questions that will be asked so that the President can work on responses. When such are the working conditions of the modern presidency, what has “sincerity” got to do with it? About as much as the “sincerity” evidenced by Johnnv Carson when, after chatting earnestly with his guests, he gives you that crinkly, sincere expression (you understand, I’ve got to do this) and launches into a spiel for something in a spray can.

The Federal Trade Commission seems to believe that sincerity in huckstering can be regulated by law. It recently issued guidelines saying that professional actors must be identified on screen when pretending to be ordinary truck drivers with acid stomachs, or housewives with limp paper toweling. Joe DiMaggio. w’ho speaks a patois that Marlon Brando can only labor to imitate, is a prize advertising salesman now because of his “believability” in clumsily mouthing lines he has been taught to repeat. Is anyone being deceived? I doubt it.

But then, I happen to believe that we need to be saved less from insincerity than from sincerity. If you are looking for a certain kind of sincerity, take George Wallace. He often seems to be saying the first thing that comes into his head. Demagogues never have to qualify their remarks, which is part of their appeal if you believe that problems are that simple. And we all know well-intentioned people who are convinced that their unselfish dedication to a cause is assurance enough that their recommendations are right. Carter Glass once complained of William Jennings Bryan, “that goddam nincompoop thinks that any man with real goodness of heart can write a banking act.”

People full of simplistic certainties are likely to have the most convincing demeanor on television. The deadly vice of that medium, therefore, is that it encourages decided judgments of character with little to go on, and that little is often misleading. Valuable as being straightforward is. in ordinary relations we all correctly acknowledge occasions when truth is too harsh, when kindness requires tact; and other occasions when one wants to think in advance to assure that a point is made with maximum effectiveness. I don’t see why this should he confused with lack of sincerity. But we are a romantic people who prize spontaneity and suspect calculation. Blunt speaking is reckoned an American virtue. A certain kind of businessman, who prides himself on being hard-nosed (his nose gets that way by being pressed constantly to the bottom line), has only contempt for the evasions of the politician. Yet obviously calculations enter the judgments of the plainspoken too. They also get their ducks in a row. The difference is that the politician, if unable to please everybody, must hope on any issue to avoid antagonizing as many as possible.

Such conduct becomes a tic of the trade. Yet if politics provides basic training in the art of dissembling, it is a mere prep school compared to diplomacy. The public of course regards diplomacy as a two-faced line of work, and can repeat all the old saws about men sent abroad to lie for their country. But if that were all there was to it, all diplomacy would be impossible. Diplomats themselves, who have long since put their naïveté behind them, belong to a mutual protection society which has its own standards of trust, just as businessmen live amiably by a code of practices which their public relations departments don’t admit and the law affecting them doesn’t quite cover. A diplomat may avoid the lie direct, but feels no need to remind his opponent of that clause he forgot to nail down.

Where, then, on the sincerity charts does one put Henry Kissinger? Calculation is his daily bread. He has schooled himself to believe that diplomacy is about interests, not sentiments. He hasn’t yet learned to deny himself sympathy; he bruises easily and lets his wounds show, which is the most sincere behavior of his we see. But he has the requisite weary cynicism. “God save us from men out to preserve their purity,” he once remarked. He is a master at keeping two versions of the same story in his head while negotiating, so that he can emphasize to each side that part of the argument that will have most appeal. Such qualities are alien to the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington belief in the ultimate triumph of the open-faced, innocent American, and in the long haul, democracy is likely to prove an unappreciative customer for Kissinger’s kind of manipulations.

He may already have overreached himself by being over-clever. Yet he is the diplomat of his day who is best equipped to reach the frigid heights of his craft, that commanding Mount Rushmore where loom such impassive faces as that of Talleyrand. who taught that a foreign secretary “must have the faculty of appearing open, while remaining impenetrable, of masking reserve with the manner of careless abandon.” Talleyrand thought treason to be a matter of dates; those whom he served, the kings and emperors, might fall, but he survived. “I am thought immoral and Machiavellian,” he protested, “I am only calm and disdainful.” Madame Rémusat described him Well: “More artificial than anybody else, he was able to build up a natural character out of a thousand affectations.” Yet Talleyrand too could insist that “diplomacy is not a science of deceit and duplicity. People have made the mistake of confusing reserve with deceit. Good faith never authorizes deceit but it admits of reserve; and reserve has this peculiarity, that it increases confidence.”

Talleyrand is appealingly despicable, not a model to put before your son. Still, he had his qualities, which television watchers, who are too preoccupied with apparent sincerity, would only scorn. But give me the man in public affairs who is attentive to the nuance and complexity of events, and doesn’t blunderbuss his way with roughshod certainty. If, knowing all the subtleties of a situation, he is able like Lincoln to come across plainly too, all the better. I don’t even mind if, in this final “sincere” projection of self, his skill in performance owes something to the art of the actor. For all the great political figures have had that.