A student alerted me to this news analysis in The Washington Post last week, suggesting that President Barack Obama was dismissive of the art of political theater.
“…minutes after delivering a statement proclaiming himself “heartbroken” over the execution of journalist James Foley by the Islamic State, Obama went out and played a round of golf on Martha’s Vineyard. On Sunday, in an interview with Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press”, Obama came close to acknowledging that that decision had been a mistake. He said (in part): “I should’ve anticipated the optics. Part of this job is also the theater of it….it’s not always something that comes naturally to me. But it matters.”
I posted the link on my facebook page [friend me if you like]. The article spawned 280 comments on The Post website (not unusual) and a bunch of erudite reflections on my wall (also not unusual). Here’s a flavor of the debate:
Stephanie… “It’s true. He is so intelligent in many ways, but is tone-deaf when it comes to “optics”. I think this quote goes further than “close to acknowledging”–to my ear, it is definitely an apology. I can just see the daily schedule by which our presidents live, and how they go on autopilot following what it dictates.”
Ari… “Thanks for this reflection, Stephanie. Here’s the thing for all of us who believe in the integrity of theater to contemplate: Is the press and Obama himself suggesting in their use of the term “theater,” that the art form is full of empty gesture; worse, a deception? Bill Clinton loved–and loves–the theater of politics; he happens to be a master at it. Obama, in defining himself in contrast to the Clintons, purposely rejected what he considered empty acts that might look good but ultimately accomplished little to nothing…. On the other hand, he does concede that ‘It matters.’ Theatrics matter. Now the question is why and how?”
David… “I relate his citing ‘the theater of it’ to the term optics. Optics, to me, does imply a certain emptiness, in that it is referring explicitly to how a particular act looks. When you add that to the euphemism “political theater” – which is almost exclusively used as a pejorative judgement of something which is intended only to look a certain way, but not really be committed to what it is showing–then, yeah, I think the word theater is being used to imply hypocrisy in the most negative sense. Certainly nothing to do with integrity. The message that he seems to be sending here is to forget about whether the president, after proclaiming his heart to be broken, wanted to go play a round of golf. The gaff was that he actually let people see him do it.
Steven… I think the [Walter] Benjaminian distinction between “a politicization of aesthetics” (Agitprop) and the “aestheticization of politics” (Fascism) helps clarify the problem here. Neither of those two options is really good for the soul or the polis. And that is why criticizing the idea of “political theater” is fair enough as far as I am concerned–just as using theater entirely for spreading the regime’s/party’s propaganda would be enslaving theater to an inappropriate end. We need a responsible, truth-seeking and -seeing approach in both realms, and not an illegitimate conflation of them–which is what Obama dislikes, I assume. Which is not, however, to condemn the LEGITIMATE combination of the two (such as the Inauguration events in 2009).
Ari… “pretty brilliant, Steven. I think I could build a course off that little paragraph of yours…”
Steven… “Very nice of you to say, Ari–anytime you want to do a course together on theatre (theater?) and politics.”
Stephanie… There is also a difference between theatre and the theatrics of politics, isn’t there? In Hillary’s review of Kissinger’s new book, she veers away from reviewing the book to essentially bragging that HE routinely “checked in” with HER instead of just saying that they kept in touch. To me, this was bad “optics”– why not show him some respect if the review says he marks the right path for our future??? It really hit me wrong. “Terrible political actor” refers to the political antennae Obama seems to be missing and has little to do with theatre, I would argue…
Have it, folks!
And feel free to respond, alternately, to these two thought-provoking articles on the purpose of theater; the efficacy of it to the individual and/or to society? How does theater change us?
There’s this piece by the great playwright, Richard Nelson, author of the Apple Family plays (seen by students last season at Studio Theatre) who write on “the Peculiar Nature of Theatre”—”What’s a play for? Not to change the world, but to replicate the intricate workings of the human heart.” Can that change the world? Can theater? Let’s discuss!
There’s also this, reflecting on the challenge of getting people out to the theater. What to make realistically of theater’s role in society today? The important critic (and SATCHMO AT THE WALDORF playwright) Terry Teachout discusses “How Theaters Can Combat the Stay-at-Home Mindset.” “What’s gone wrong with theater?” he asks. What’s going right with it here in DC?
Finally, there’s the brilliant theater scholar Jill Dolan and her tour de force treatise “Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theater” We’re reading excerpts from it. I’m gonna buy me the entire book right now (but not necessarily on Amazon)!