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In Politics, Personality Is Power: Diana Had It, But Gore Loses Out

September 14, 1997|William Schneider | William Schneider, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a political analyst for CNN

WASHINGTON — Personality is now power. Presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan achieved an extraordinary amount of political power by force of personality. So did British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Princess Diana.

Diana had political power? Of course. It was on display in the astonishing spectacle of her funeral, when she achieved her ultimate triumph: She forced the British monarchy to bend to her will.

The queen of England found herself helpless before Diana's angry constituency. She had to make humiliating concessions: a television speech paying homage to her ex-daughter-in-law, a royal funeral for someone to whom, a year ago, she had denied a royal title. And what happened at the funeral? The queen got insulted to her face by Diana's brother.

Earl Charles Spencer said Diana "needed no royal title to generate her particular brand of magic." He promised his sister, "we, your blood family" will raise your sons in "the imaginative and loving way in which you were steering these two exceptional young men." Not like they would raise them, "immersed by duty and tradition." So there.

To which the audience outside and inside Westminster Abbey responded with spontaneous applause. Not so long ago, Spencer's defiance would have earned him a nice long stay in the Tower of London. Or maybe a short stay. "Oh, who will rid me of these troublesome in-laws?" the queen would have said. Off with his head!

Instead, it was the queen who had her head handed to her by her subjects. They demanded she pay homage to the tragically deceased princess of Wales. Diana, not the queen, was "She who must be obeyed." That's political power. And we now know who orchestrated the whole thing: Blair. The royal family knew nothing about damage control. Why should a queen know about damage control? Or public opinion? She rules by the grace of God, doesn't she?

Well, no. She rules by the consent of her subjects--just like a politician. And she must work hard to cultivate that consent. Far harder than she used to--because Diana's funeral was a turning point in British history.

Blair's political advisors had to be called in to manage the whole affair. Labor Party consultants knew what to do. They managed the prime minister's rise to power by deftly exhibiting Blair's personal qualities. Family values? Blair was constantly photographed with the wife and kids, the very image of a modern yuppie household. Religiosity? They went to church (almost no one in Britain goes to church). Hipness? Everyone knows Blair once played in a rock band. Toughness? Blair's carefully staged confrontations with the unions and the Labor left.

Blair's election last May was a personal victory, and it meant the British political order has been transformed into something far more personalized. Now, just a few months later, the British constitutional order has been transformed. The royal family is being forced to personalize its power. "Show us you care, Ma'am," the popular press demanded. She tried, but her populist affectation was awkward, like Bob Dole singing "I'm a Dole man" on the campaign trail last year.

The queen admitted there were "lessons to be learned" from Diana's short life and public career. Like what? The cheap techniques the princess of Wales used to build a devoted personal following?

Yes. It's called image management, and it's the very essence of modern political life. Today, personality has become a key source of political power. Skillful politicians (and consultants) know how to market personality. Reagan was a master at it. He projected likability, while most current aspirants to leadership of the conservative movement come across as harsh and mean.

Clinton also rules by the grace of personality. The trick he learned from Reagan is to show no trace of cynicism. Clinton is all optimism ("the man from Hope"), openness (down to his underwear) and vulnerability (his 1992 confessions on "60 Minutes"). Clinton's personal favorability rating now stands at 63%.

People like Clinton, but they don't trust him. Just 53% say they consider Clinton honest. Compare Vice President Al Gore. His rating for honesty is 64%. Lucky for Gore, Diana's death bumped the news about money-laundering Buddhist nuns and illegal calls for cash right off the front pages. People still say they trust Gore more than Clinton. But they like Clinton better (Gore's favorability is at 55%).

Gore is one of those politicians who have trouble projecting personality. That could be a problem if--as now seems likely--Gore comes under investigation by an independent counsel and his ratings on trustworthiness start to tumble. He doesn't have the personal base Clinton had when he got into trouble in 1994. The same was true of George Bush. Bush got elected because people thought he could do the job. But when his job ratings sank, Bush had no personal base of support to fall back on the way Reagan and Clinton did.

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