[Originally published @ Birdseed Shirt, 05/01/2008]
Halfway through Way Out There in the Blue, a book on Reagan’s presidency for my Cold War and American Society seminar. My brain is shot and I want to relax, but I have to throw something out that’s been spinning around in my head while reading it.
So much commentary in analysis of Reagan focuses on him as an actor. Either as an actor “playing” the President as he imagined it rather than being the President, or as a politician playing the role of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”/Average Joe or right-wing Republican politician as suited him. The comparison of his speeches on the need for an Anti-Ballistic Missile system to quotes from movies is interesting too. Nonetheless, the implicit criticism of this strikes me as odd. Granted, Reagan’s remove from actual policy and ignorance on a host of vital issues is profoundly disturbing. However, politician-as-actor seems rather run of the mill. Isn’t all campaigning acting? Your identity as a politician and your success at winning elections is not about policy details and programs (says my inner cynic). Presidents are elected just as much on likeability, impressions, auras, and aw-shucksness. People buy into an image as much as an ideology. Reagan, who was actually an actor, was simply far better at exaggerating his own personality to be marketable. As opposed to say, John Kerry.
Is there a fundamental tension between what’s needed to be a good politician/legislator/leader (intelligence, flexibility, nuanced understanding) and what’s needed to win elections (decisiveness, relatability, etc.)? Not sure how much I agree with anything I wrote in this paragraph. But politics aside, the identity issues surrounding acting are still fascinating.
Firstly, there’s the whole actor/character dichotomy, which Reagan navigates interestingly, appropriating aspects of his more famous film characters for the purposes of rhetoric, blending reality and fiction. Makes me wish I remembered the Baudrillard we read in Theory of Knowledge in high school. Simulation/Simulacra and that stuff. Curious as to how it would apply to today’s world of hypercelebrity, where the levels of identity move from actor/character to individual actor/character in films/public celebrity identity. Which, come to think of it, isn’t that different from the levels of identity we move between on a daily basis. E-mail and AIM screen names and nicknames. The different ways we project ourselves in different situations. The self-conscious nature of most forms of interaction or creation. What am I projecting about myself by writing this? What message do I want a reader to get out of this rambling? How do I distinguish between what’s authentically “me” and that which I consciously or subconsciously create in an attempt to shape my own identity and people’s perceptions of me. Do I constantly live outside my head, or only imagine that I do?
This is poorly thought through and imprecise. I’m going to come back to this later and expand/edit it, so I can read it over and feel like I’ve written something coherent and logical, but for now I’ll just leave it be.