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.
That's why most leaders "have no personal values," says psychohistorian Lloyd deMause. "They just follow whatever irrational wishes we want to pour in them. So you'll get a wide range of personalities who will become these delegates or toadies of the people when the country is in the mood for irrational activities."
Though this is a longstanding criticism of democratic politics, the problem is perhaps more pronounced in the minority community. Part of the reason is that one of the catalyzing ideas of the civil rights movement was the theory that American society was primarily characterized by racism and that American institutions were grounded in the maintenance of racial privilege. Many of the black politicians who swept into office on the heels of the movement consciously embodied this organizing principle. They wed their legitimacy to the belief that all the problems confronting blacks were rooted in racism. To this day, many black officeholders depend on the perception of ongoing, widespread racism in order to remain competitive. They underplay the dramatic economic and social improvements experienced by blacks over the last 40 years. They know that the easiest way to win re-election is to make the voters believe that the problems confronting the black lower class continue to stem primarily from racism. Continuing to cling to the idea of race-based solutions has now isolated the black community and led it down a dead-end street. Instead of acknowledging this fact by re-evaluating the tenets of liberalism, our leaders just tout the same racially divisive rhetoric that solicits knee-jerk reactions. And they continue to win, because at least one sad political reality is that emotional arguments often trump sensible discussion of policy reform.
Barry knows this. He understands that distilling complex policy issues into images and sound bites gets you elected. He also understands that in order to get elected in a democracy, you must seem like a majority of the electorate. So he hangs out in the community, he eats at the corner diner, he pops into the barber shop, and for most people that is enough.
For those still on the fence, Barry stumbles to the stage and mutters something about how the people of ward 8 are victims, but how he's going to change that? And the crowd pumps its fists in support. A star is reborn.