Where are all the bare- chested leaders?

William Safire

August 30, 1993|By William Safire

Paris -- WHY ARE the world media so avidly covering the pudgy paunches of leaders on vacation?

Granted, the return of Boris Yeltsin from his holiday retreat to harangue the rump Russian Parliament may be worth reporting.

And the picture of Li Peng in bathing trunks deserves the space it got, because his reappearance in public means that hard-liners in Beijing have their champion back.

But profiles of John Major lollygagging in Portugal? Details of Edouard Balladur's friendly dog, Titan, injuring a French bodyguard by bounding into him? Helmut Kohl consuming great mounds of dumplings in St. Gilgen on the Wolfgangsee?

America's journalistic class, not to be outdone, has been swarming all over Bill Clinton's grim determination to relax if it kills him. Ah, the Martha's Vineyard We never cover what leaders think; we cursorily cover what they do; but we always cover what sort of people they are.

parties and their celebrity guest lists, the beach and pool shots, the saturation coverage of every splash.

What's the reason for this international lust for political beefcake? Is it because the world press is all geared up for round-the-clock coverage, and is forced by its own momentum to cover the non-news of leaders on vacation as fiercely as we report news of leaders resolutely striking poses when at work?

We're not talking here about the telescopic color shot of Princess Di in a bikini; that has aesthetic value, and qualifies as news. But Li Peng and Bill Clinton stripped to the waist?

I think it's more than the need to shovel uninterrupted reportage into the maw of the ever-publishing, always-broadcastingmedia. More alarming is this possibility: Readers and viewers may actually be interested in the story, with pictures, of Leaders At Play.

One source of that interest is reader guilt: There you are goofing off in August, the offingest month, but not to worry -- all the responsible biggies are gone, too. Conversely, we have leader-identification: Although you can't get time off, your leader is representing you at the beach.

Another reason is pseudotherapy: We persuade ourselves that it's good for the leaders' minds for them to get in touch with their bodies. According to this notion, relaxation equals health equals sound mind equals good government. But common sense tells us that our leaders work harder at appearing to relax than they work at appearing to work.

My theory is that a pernicious reporter-reader symbiosis has transmogrified all leadership -- even genuine leadership -- into mere celebrity. We never cover what leaders think; we cursorily cover what they do; but we always cover what sort of people they are. Our central question is not "Where are they taking us?" but "What are they really like?"

We focus less on our leaders' impact on us than on our impact on them. As a result, we produce a cult of personality even when they have no personality.

That explains the continuing coverage of discontinued activity, which reflects public fascination with Mr. Kohl's dumplings, Mr. Balladur's dog, Mr. Li's chest and Mr. Clinton's down-the-tube channel-surfing.

That also explains why leaders must play the relaxation game. They must demonstrate a false normality no matter how much they think it a waste of the most valuable time of their lives.

If they and we were really interested in recreation in its original sense -- re-creating our intellectual energies -- we would be asking, "What are you reading?" and perhaps getting answers like " 'The Moral Sense,' by James Q. Wilson," or " 'Loyalty,' by George P. Fletcher."

Or we should be asking, "What are you thinking about, now that you can vacate your mind to think?" The purpose of a holiday is not to become as near as possible to a vegetable, but to refresh mind and body by enjoying the meat and potatoes of postponed activity in a changed atmosphere.

Better still, if we were interested in our own welfare, we would ignore our leaders when they go on vacation. We would take a vacation from them.

This would be better for our leaders, allowing them to recharge their batteries without relentlessly exhibiting themselves at leisure. More to the point, the peoples of the world could achieve a holiday that celebrity-leaders are powerless to declare -- a true vacation of the governed.

William Safire is a New York Times columnist.

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