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Known Qualities

By Marc Fisher

Sunday, November 28, 1999; Page W04

THINK ABOUT YOUR neighbors for a moment. Not the ones you know well, but the ones you see coming and going, the ones you've never quite gotten around to saying more than hello to. Do you know them? Well, not really. But can you say something about them? Sure.

In many cases, you can read them. I have a neighbor with whom I have never once spoken, yet I could sketch out a plausible personality profile of him, based on my gut take on slim evidence: where he works, what he drives, how he dresses, where he travels to, what his kids do, who his friends are. I wouldn't bet the farm on the accuracy of my profile, but it feels right.

So it is with celebrities and politicians. How do you decide which ones you like? You never really know these people, but often enough, you think you can read them. And the ones who are easy to read are generally the ones we like.

Take presidents, for example. Forget their politics. Look strictly at how sure you are that you've pretty well got their number: Clinton, Reagan, Kennedy, Ike, Truman. Easy. Maybe you know somebody like them, maybe you just have a good feeling that you could sit down with them and they'd be just as you expected. And there they sit atop the popularity charts.

Turn it around: Bush, Carter, Nixon, Johnson. Harder now, isn't it? It's not that they are darker figures -- Bush and Carter seemed pleasant enough, if not exactly the kind of guys you'd like to take on a picnic. It's not that they weren't good at their jobs -- Johnson and Nixon have long lists of achievements. No, the problem is that you can't quite figure them. Insufficient constancy in their public image. They were too willing to change, too desperate. Not quite human. (Remember Bush's bizarre moment at a town meeting in New Hampshire in 1992, when he answered a question by saying, "Message: I care"?) Worst of all, these guys were hard to figure out -- unreadable.

Enter Al Gore. Seemed like a nice enough guy, maybe even a decent person. That is, until he started doing the kinds of contortions we've seen before in that Unreadable group. He became the New Gore, like the New Nixon. He got folksy on us, like Bush and his pork rinds. He started telling us deeply personal stuff that we didn't want to know, like Carter and his lust.

The amazing thing about the voting public in this era of image manipulation, policy-by-focus-group and fat-cat political consultants is that the public laughs in the manipulators' general direction. People still go by their gut, and their gut knows who the phonies are. (This, of course, does not stop the consultants from raking in the bucks. A house tour of the Washington-area manses of the folks who tell presidential candidates precisely how they must alter their personae would be most revealing. It might even be the solution to the campaign finance issue: How many $1,000 donors would keep on giving after seeing the fabulous houses they have purchased for pollsters and imagemakers?)

Our celebrity culture is an entertainment. Do we as consumers of news really expect reporters to get behind a celebrity's, politician's or business leader's public persona, to reveal a candidate's inner self? No, we use the press to deliver the basis for our gut check. We expect reporters to be pesky creatures who poke and probe these souls until we can figure out if their character is readable.

Certain mysteries we know we're never going to get behind -- and that's fine, because we've already figured out that these characters are opaque. No one has come close to explaining Hillary Clinton and her marriage, despite the felling of vast ranges of forest in the service of that pursuit. Did you ever really understand Bob Dole? What was that about? We know that Bill Gates can't possibly be the nice man in creamy sweaters that he tries to be, but is he the vicious, greedy monopolist his opponents make him out to be, or the placid nerd he is sometimes portrayed as? No one has managed to pierce the PR battalions surrounding him to find out. These folks are unreadable; therefore, we mistrust them.

So when Al Gore sneaks around and spends $15,000 a month to hire an oddball like Naomi Wolf, a controversialist who campaigns against the tyranny of the beauty culture and then plasters soft-lit glossies of herself and her perfectly teased hair all over the Internet and on her book jackets, we have two choices: We can say Gore's a good man who's been duped by over-eager aides, or we can say this is a man who does not know himself, a man who is unknowable, unreadable and therefore not fit to be president.

A person who makes her living by writing pop philosophy about sex tells a man who would be president of the United States that he must be a different kind of man, that he must be more assertive, that he must wear a brown suit of a sort that is alien to virtually every American. And he says, "Okay."

To call him unreadable is to be charitable.

Marc Fisher's e-mail address is fisherm@washpost.com.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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