Politics, Nannies and the Manipulation of Symbols

February 14, 1993|By DAVID I. KERTZER

Apresident leads by persuasion, and he persuades by using powerful symbols. To win political battles you have to know how to attach the right symbols to what you are doing. Ronald Reagan's great popular success was linked to his masterful use of symbols, while George Bush -- after flirting with flag factories and reaching the pinnacle of success by demonizing Saddam Hussein -- was ultimately a victim of symbolic ineptitude.

Bill Clinton is no stranger to the symbol wars, having fashioned an identity for himself in the campaign as "the man from Hope," the poor boy who shook JFK's hand, the embodiment of the American dream. He knew enough, in his first days in office, to portray his efforts to allow homosexuals in the military as a matter of "civil rights" rather than one of "gay rights." Yet in his first weeks in office, his efforts to use the selection of an attorney general to his symbolic benefit have painfully backfired.

Partisans of the new president have wrung their hands at what they see as the unfairness of the public and the media in the avalanche of attention devoted to the Zoe Baird-Kimba Wood fiasco. Why, they ask, isn't more attention paid to Mr. Clinton's accomplishments? Why aren't women's groups praising the president for signing the family leave bill rather than castigating him for ditching two women candidates for attorney general? Why are talk show switchboards lighted up by calls about the selection of an attorney general when few of the callers could even name the previous occupant of that office, much less know just what it was that the attorney general would actually do?

The issue of the proper way to employ domestic help skyrocketed overnight from political obscurity to center stage on the American political scene. It was the kind of puzzling event that can only be explained when we admit something we find somehow embarrassing. The fact is that people form their political understanding largely through the public staging of rites, symbols and myths.

Nothing is so effective in this process as the staging of political dramas, a technique perfected by the Senate in its committee hearings. We may forget a lot of things about politics -- about bills, laws, federal agencies, new programs and cabinet members -- but we don't forget the dramatic spectacles staged for our benefit: Who fails to remember Oliver North's defiant encounter with the Senate committee investigating the Iran-Contra affair, or Clarence Thomas's degrading duel with Anita Hill?

Neither the public nor the media like discussing the ambiguities and complexities of programs and policies. What they really like are morality plays and dramas that pit individuals against one another. We like to think in terms of simple oppositions, and are most comfortable when these are represented by actual people. The complexities of international drug trafficking and Lattin American politics get reduced to the need to purge the world of Manuel Noriega. The problem with Iraq becomes simply that of Saddam Hussein.

The Zoe Baird explosion could not have occurred if we didn't have the ritual of the Senate confirmation hearing, a kind of inquisition that allows preening Senators to cast themselves as the voices of the national conscience, the high priests of the civic religion, ready to identify and root out threats to the nation. It was of course, this dramatic medium that allowed Anita Hill's comments on sexual harassment -- which would have otherwise been ignored -- to become a national obsession.

Ms. Baird came to this highly charged forum in a vulnerable position. Almost totally unknown to the public, she had to fashion her identity from scratch. Without even the symbolism of title -- no "Colonel North" or "Judge Thomas" here -- to give her credibility, and with her age counting against her, she came to the hearing essentially as the bearer of a single recognizable characteristic: she was a woman.

There is some irony here, for while many women's groups expressed their outrage that Ms. Baird was being viewed as a woman rather than being evaluated in gender-free terms, the necessity of having a woman appointed as attorney general was a product of their own symbolic strategy.

On the other hand, the obligatory claims by the senators that the candidate's gender had nothing to do with their seemingly single-minded focus on her child-care arrangements ring hollow. Our High Priest of Justice has always been a male, and the fiction must be maintained that the Priest is above human temptation. Men, in mainstream American culture, are associated with the public sphere, women with the private; men with politics, women with family and kin. Ms. Baird's failing, in this symbolic universe, was in mixing categories.

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