PRESIDENT BUSH'S NEW ROLE:
How September 11th Transformed The President

By JOHN DEAN

Friday, Oct. 26, 2001

To view national politics as theater, played on both a domestic and world stage, is to appreciate a reality of contemporary public affairs. This fact has long been clear to me as I have observed political figures operate up close and personal, both on stage and off.

For this reason I found the thoughts of one of America's preeminent playwrights, Arthur Miller, a man who knows a good thespian when he sees one, of particular interest. In an essay published as a book shortly before the terrorists attacks on September 11th, On Politics and the Art of Acting, Miller shared his observations "about politicians as actors."

Reading Miller's views in light of current events and circumstances, it appears that President George Bush has found a role with which he is comfortable, not to mention good at playing. Nothing has changed more on our nation's political stage than our president's performance. Miller's essay helps us understand the meaning of this fact.

Politicians As Actors

Miller feels that we are moved more by our leader's personalities — or theatrical skills — than by their proposals and politics. While politicians have always acted, the pervasive nature of television has made this ability the key to political success.

"Political leaders everywhere have come to understand that to govern they must learn how to act," Miller explains. From a playwright's perspective, political leaders face challenges very similar to those of the actor.

"[A] play," Miller states, "is trying to create an individual out of a mob, a single unified reaction." Like the actor, the political leader "has to find the magnetic core that will draw together a fragmented public," and must "avoid sending signals that might alienate significant sectors of his audience."

Miller's sees the great actor and politician rising above the scripts they are given. It is an appealing analogy, so long as we don't forget that the politician often writes the script. Actors merely play their roles.

Great Actor/Politicians

Before television, the politician Huey Long, the one-time governor of Louisiana (and the subject of Robert Penn Warren's novel All The Kings Men) was, for Miller, the consummate actor. "Had he not been assassinated he might well have, as many feared (including President Franklin Roosevelt), reached the highest levels of national power. His rise was no doubt the most impressive victory of sheer acting ability this country has ever known."

Another great actor/politician was Franklin Roosevelt. While Miller disagreed with many of FDR's actions, as with any great actor, it was something other than rational reactions that transformed Roosevelt into "a noble figure." Miller says that Roosevelt had "the impact of the star" — a mysterious quality that "can only leave the inquiring mind confused, resentful, or blank."

Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton are in the same league as FDR for Miller. They display a "relaxed sincerity" when on camera, as a great actor does on stage. While Reagan had perfected his skills in Hollywood, Clinton developed an ability to relax on camera that most actors would envy. Miller believes both men love acting, that they come alive when they are "on," and voters have clearly appreciated their performances.

Bush And Gore As Actors

Miller's critique of Al Gore and George Bush is based on the 2000 presidential campaign. Both men were, in theatrical terms, character actors.

During the campaign, both projected a kind of embarrassment. And both failed to project what every good actor must — a sense that they loved doing what they were doing: acting. To the contrary, both men were uncomfortable with their roles. Both played men of the people — common men — when in fact both were the products of elite educations and upbringing.

Neither Gore nor Bush evidenced star quality. Miller's explanation of the reason for this failure is striking: neither man evidenced danger.

Miller says it is danger that attracts the audience, but "neither Gore nor Bush was particularly threatening" thus "their offer of protective affection" was not taken very seriously by the audience. For Miller, the "perfect model of both star and political leader is that smiling and implicitly dangerous man who likes you."

The Bush Presidency Began On September 11th

Writing in the early days of Bush's presidency, and given the "fractured election and donation by the Supreme Court," Miller found the new president confronted with a need for an "awesome" amount of acting.

While the assumption of the power had itself enhanced Bush's performances, Miller's praise was thin: the new President, according to Miller's assessment, had not shown many skills.

Faint praise is not surprising. Before September 11, 2001, only the most ardent Bush fan could have found anything remarkable in Bush's performance.

Needless to say all has changed. No doubt Miller is surprised — like many of us who once grimaced as we watched Bush struggle with his syntax, as he spent day after day demonstrating his fealty to the right wing of his party during the first eight months of his term. We are all pleasantly surprised that Bush has found a new role, and a role he obviously enjoys. Some of us may even breathe a sigh of relief at the transformation.

Suddenly Bush's off-hand remarks resonate appropriately, rather than sounding like misplaced imitations from an old Clint Eastwood movie: "Going to smoke 'em out of their caves," "Want the evil one dead or alive," his references to "women of cover," and his other cryptic comments. His memorable megaphone-in-hand, arm around a fireman, appearance at ground zero is another example.

In fact, Bush's prepared address to Congress following the terrorist attacks was the most eloquent speech he has delivered since stepping on the national stage some two years ago. While Mark Gerson, the principal speechwriter, and others on the staff deserve substantial credit, Bush's delivery was confident and compelling.

When he subsequently gave his first White House East Room press conference — for he had not previously ventured out of the small, informal press room at the White House — many wondered how he would do. His performance was befitting his status as a world leader, notwithstanding the fact he said nothing he had not already stated (except insofar as he gave the Taliban a second chance to hand over Osama bin Laden).

Assessing Bush's New Role

Hopefully, Arthur Miller will add a postscript one day to his observations about Bush. In particular, I would like to know if he now sees Bush as a star — for he has certainly become the dangerous man who likes us, and wants to protect us.

We are all encouraged that Bush appears, really for the first time in his experience on the stage of presidential politics, relaxed. His comfort is our comfort.

Our great presidents have been our wartime presidents — when they have won: Washington (Revolutionary War), Lincoln (Civil War), Wilson (WWI), and Franklin Roosevelt (WWII). Merely fighting a war does not make a president great. Nor does great acting alone do the job. The wartime president must not only do a great job on stage, but off stage as well. For it must be recognized our presidents not only have roles to play, but they both write and direct their own performances, particularly in times of war.


John Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former Counsel to the President of the United States.

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