Two years ago, Marion Barry, former mayor of Washington, D.C., came wobbling into the Renaissance TV studio in the nation's capitol. He was a half-hour late for a local show he was co-hosting called "B & W."
"Do you have the research for this show?" Barry asked a production assistant when he entered the studio. His co-host rolled her eyeballs and stalked away. Barry had not prepared. Again. Barry leaned lazily against a wall as an assistant scrambled to cobble together some talking points.
Fifteen seconds before the cameras rolled, Barry stood in the center of a dark hallway his forehead wrinkled in confusion. He was lost. Again. A production assistant ran down the hall, grabbed him and led him to the set.
The show was a disaster. Every show was a disaster. Barry talked over his co-host, rambled nonsensically, often drifting off into murmurs.
This is the former mayor of the nation's capitol? This is the guy who, as a young up-and-comer, ignited people's souls? This is the guy who somehow managed to get elected even after TV cameras caught a crack pipe dangling from his mouth?
Apparently so. And with good reason. Just ask the people in ward 8 who recently elected Barry to the D.C. City Council. "Barry cares about the people," is their emphatic refrain. Interestingly, the people of ward 8 don't talk about any specific policies that Barry enacted during his prolonged stint as mayor. Nor do they dwell on the fact that Barry oversaw a fiscal irresponsibility so pervasive that it bankrupted the district. These things don't come up because Barry's appeal is emotional and specifically designed to override logic.
In this regard, Barry is one in a longstanding tradition of American politicians who used images to auger - and even supplant - ideas: Teddy Roosevelt, a childhood wimp, shamelessly disseminated phony macho exploits to justify war and solidify his rule over the country; FDR used impressive stage management to portray himself as someone who had overcome polio; JFK hid his nearly debilitating arthritis to project a charming image of youthful vigor; Ronald Reagan, who made no bones about image politics, once quipped, "For years I've heard the question: 'How could an actor be president?' I've sometimes wondered how you could be president and not be an actor." Then there was Clinton, who set a new mark of celebrity politics by appearing on MTV and packing every public event with pop stars and movie celebs. Each of these men used popular image to legitimize their rule. This is inevitable in a democracy, where a politician's job security depends on satisfying the whims - no matter how irrational - of the majority.