If you want to know something important -- or at least interesting -- about American presidential politics, pick up the most recent issue of the New York Review of Books and hurry past the articles by various intellectuals to the personals. There you will find an ad placed by an "Enticing Artist." She says that she is a "funny, fun, adventurous and radiant Katharine Hepburn type" who is "tall and slim" -- just the sort of dreamboat you'd think wouldn't have to advertise. I went into a swoon just writing about her.
The language of the personals -- I could have picked any publication -- is now the language of politics. You could compare what "Enticing Artist" said about herself to what John Kerry said about himself when he was interviewed back in August by George Stephanopoulos. Here, too, modesty fell by the wayside, and Kerry tooted his own horn. He was a leader, a hero, a combat veteran, someone with executive experience, a take-charge sort of guy who knows "how to make tough decisions" and "will lead this country." He might also have added "tall and slim" but not, I think, "radiant."
I do not fault Kerry, nor am I being critical of him. The historian Michael Beschloss attributes this language of self-aggrandizement to the nature of the modern-day political process. As with someone creating a personal ad, the contemporary presidential nominee has to do for himself what nominees of the past could leave to others. Attesting to the manifest virtues of a candidate was once the obligation of a political party and its bosses, who, most of the time, chose nominees they actually knew. The reformist Franklin D. Roosevelt was oddly enough picked by Democratic bosses. Maybe the country did not know him at first, but his party's bosses sure did.
John F. Kennedy and, later, new nominating rules changed all that. JFK, hardly the darling of the bosses, became the Democratic nominee in 1960 by winning seven primaries -- and then he won the presidency. To a large extent, he went over the heads of party leaders who had reservations about him. For all his glamour and papa's money, he was still only a one-term senator, and it might have been best if he had waited a bit to make a presidential bid. In certain ways, he was not ready.
Now the bosses are mostly gone, effectively replaced by the voters of early primary and caucus states -- a system so front-loaded that the nominating process was over about a month after it started. Kerry sewed up the nomination by winning the Iowa caucuses and then the New Hampshire primary. It was only Jan. 27. A month later, after oodles of media coverage, 41 percent of voters in a CBS News poll still considered him an unknown, and even by June the figure had only dropped to 33 percent, in a separate Bloomberg survey.
The language of the personal ad is not necessarily limited to politics. You can hear it all the time on "The Apprentice," when this or that hyper-ambitious person tells Donald Trump what any boss in real life would already know: something about his employee's abilities. But the conceit of the show is that the winner will run a major piece of Trump's business. It's the presidential primaries all over again -- the same leap of faith and therefore the same language.
George W. Bush, too, sometimes used the language of personals -- I'm a leader, etc. -- to make his case, but he did so less often, I think. That's because he was already known to us, the incumbent president and the son of a former president. This is the advantage of political dynasties. It's a matter not just of name recognition but also of apparent pedigree. Little did we know that in this case the acorn fell so far from the tree that it amounted to a different species.
Language is like the canary in the mine. Just as the personal ad suggests self-delusion, desperation and the demise of conventional community -- to her neighbors, "Enticing Artist" is probably no Katharine Hepburn -- the incessant chest-pounding of the contemporary campaign suggests not just a lack of humility but alienation. At least in the beginning, we're all in some vast singles bar where there's not enough time just to be yourself. A candidate has to proclaim, boast, toot his own horn -- the awful din of a dysfunctional system. It explains why too often we go off in the night with candidates we hardly know -- and the morning after lasts four long years.