Statler and Waldorf on the Campaign Trail

When political journalists play theater critic, they miss the real drama of elections.

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The idea that Hillary Clinton wants to be president too much might be one of the most dubious talking points in politics. It received full treatment this weekend in the New York Times, when Maureen Dowd criticized Clinton for not adequately performing the following parts: "Macho Man," "Humble Granny," "Tumblr Chick," and a "clawing robot who has coveted the role as leader of the free world for decades." This is the same writer who recently blasted President Obama for not demonstrating sufficient joy in the Oval Office and who, 15 years ago, wrote that Democratic presidential candidate "Al Gore is so feminized ... he's practically lactating."

This guide to presidential etiquette is, at best, punctilious, and, at worst, nonsensical: Disliking the presidency is a sin, and so is coveting it. A nerd being himself is effeminate, trying to appeal to your audience is craven, but changing your message in reaction to critics who call you out for cravenness? Well, that's downright condemnable. These sort of writers have painted a behavioral strike zone where a candidate can miss high by being too aware that politics is performance art, or miss low by being too cool to play the part.

A great deal of political writing these days is indistinguishable from theater criticism: Its chief concerns are storyline, costumes, and the quality of public performances. When Mark Halperin visited New Hampshire this past Friday to survey the landscape of Republican presidential hopefuls, he published a report card with marks for style, substance, and an overall score. For instance:

Several readers pointed out that the style grades seemed far more determinative of the overall scores than the substance grades. But only one reader that I know of, Princeton professor Sam Wang, aligned all the grades on a graph to illustrate the point conclusively: Halperin's overall grades essentially conflated style and quality. Wang's summary was worthy of a bumper sticker for political cynics everywhere: "Substance can bring you down, never up."

Mark Halperin Hands Out Grades
Sam Wang/Princeton

In the early twentieth century, the famous acting coach Constantin Stanislavski devised a theater method that called for "psycho-physical unity." The central conceit is that when actors get a part, they ought to plumb their emotional memories and their arsenal of physical gestures to fully render the psychological life of the prescribed character. In An Actor Prepares, Stanislavski wrote:

All of our acts, even the simplest, which are so familiar to us in everyday life, become strained when we appear behind the footlights before a public of a thousand people. This is why it is necessary to correct ourselves and learn again how to walk, move about, sit or lie down. It is essential to re-educate ourselves to look and see, on the stage, to listen and to hear.

In Stanislavski's method, verisimilitude is inside-out. What the audience sees as authenticity comes from the performer's authentic connection to her inner life. The opposite can also be true: If the audience doesn't see it, the actor must not feel it.

This sort of Stanislavski critique is weirdly common among journalists who assume that when a candidate has trouble connecting with audiences, it is not a sign that they are, say, uncomfortably shy or naturally reserved. It is, rather, a deeper failure on the part of the candidate's character—a failure to find psycho-physical unity with the part we've all decided the candidate should play before the footlights of a national campaign.

To state the obvious: This is a really dumb way to try to cover elections. Theater-critic journalism is certainly not as substantive as policy analysis. It's also neither as meaty as terrific behind-the-scenes reporting, nor as harmless as anodyne horse-race coverage. It is, rather, personal opinion about a candidate's authenticity masquerading as nonpartisan analysis of their ability to connect with voters, often detached from any analysis of whether the candidate is really connecting with voters. It is a popular critic, in the orchestra section, writing in the first-person plural.

It's one thing to determine a candidate's moral fiber by, let's just say, examining their donations and electronic communications history. It's another to assess a candidate's theatrical fluency (e.g. that Clinton stands too stiffly, opens her eyes too widely, and telegraphs her target demographic too directly) and conclude that they are behaving in such a way that most people will probably like, or not. This, like actual theater criticism, can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which positive reviews prime audiences to think positively. In the political science literature, it's called "the echo chamber," in which journalists, in an attempt to reflect or anticipate candidates's popular appeal, praise their "style," regardless of their policies, entrenching the idea that the best actors will make the best candidates (and, by extension, the best presidents).

Drama-criticism-as-journalism prevails for two reasons. First, it somehow counts as non-partisan analysis. If I call out a candidate's budget cuts for impoverishing low-income families, this is leftist. But if I say Ted Cruz's voice seems too high to signal gravitas, well hey, that's just some honest stylistic analysis. Second, there is always the claim that journalism is not only a civic duty but also a business and this is just what audiences want, because who can take policy analysis all day long? But here, it's hard to know what to blame: political journalists' disinterest in policy, the journalists' perception that their readers are disinterested in policy, or some vicious loop where, by focusing on burritos and and flag pins, media organizations train their audiences to expect political analysis to be short on substance and long on style.

At any rate, we know that it's harmful, because even the best theater-critic political journalists have told us so. Several years after wondering whether Al Gore's nipples produce milk, Dowd returned to her subject in 2007. In a column deeming Clinton "overproduced" and Obama "an unfinished script" (hello, theater metaphors), she praised Gore as "prescient on climate change, the Internet, terrorism and Iraq." She went on: "It still must rankle the Nobel Peace Prize nominee to hear the White House spouting such dangerous nonsense." It also might have rankled the Nobel Peace Prize nominee to read a columnist praising his policies seven years after she painted his campaign as a PowerPoint presentation with a girly man holding the clicker. But that's just the problem with theater-critic journalists. They eventually get around to substance, but only when it offers its own tidy dramatic arc.