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THE NATION / SOCIETY

When People Are Props

May 28, 2000|Patti Davis | Patti Davis, a screenwriter, is the author of "Angels Don't Die."

It was bound to come to this: A political candidate--it happened to be New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani--going public with an intimate revelation before going private with it. Did he forget to tell his wife, Donna Hanover, that they were separating before he told the nation? Did he do it deliberately--a huge, public slap-down, a take-that gesture? Was he following a pattern set by talk-show exhibitionists?

His reasons and motivations aren't as important as the fact that the line between public and private lives has been moved around so much it has bounced out of sight. Political races and certain afternoon talk shows that people criticize but still watch are growing more alike each week. Public consumption of people's lives has stampeded the courtesy of private disclosures. Private lives--and their occupants--are being dismissed.

When did this begin? Was it with Richard M. Nixon's 1952 Checkers speech? Certainly, that was memorable: the GOP nominee for vice president of the United States offering a glimpse into his domestic life, pet and all, while addressing the nation. Did it accelerate when Jimmy Carter revealed that he had asked his young daughter, Amy, what she thought the most pressing problem facing the world was? (Amy answered nuclear proliferation.) And there was Bill Clinton (before Monica), talking in emotional detail about his alcoholic stepfather, about rushing to his mother's defense during domestic upheavals.

It's probably impossible to find an exact starting point, just as it's difficult to determine when a virus, or disease, actually began. But the point is this: Increasingly, politicians have used their private lives to help them through their public lives, detailing their problems, tragedies, personal challenges, using them as tools to make us like them, support them, take their side. "Look," Nixon was saying, "I'm just like you folks: My wife has a plain cloth coat, our children have a beloved cocker spaniel."

Nixon's Checkers speech raised some eyebrows. We had different priorities then. He was running for office as Dwight D. Eisenhower's vice president. Who the hell cared about his domestic life?

Over time, though, we the public have shifted our priorities, seeking personal information about public figures, ransacking their lives for gossip. We have become ever more voyeuristic, and the politicians, who desperately want our approval, have offered us their families, their memories, their pain, to win it. It's the ultimate codependent relationship.

By 1992, when Al Gore stood before us as a newly nominated vice-presidential candidate and spoke about the heartbreak of watching his son be struck by a car, fight for his life and slowly recover, no eyebrows were raised. Four years later, at the '96 convention, he told us about his sister's death from lung cancer. "See, I'm just like you folks: I've suffered, wept, lost loved ones." But what about the people being written into those speeches? What if they don't want to be props? It's a subtle form of trivializing human beings, depersonalizing them. Gradually, people have morphed from being used as props to being considered as props.

There is a sad truth to letting your private life become public property: Too many fingerprints get on it, too many footprints trample it. Private life loses its dignity, it's specialness. The people who inhabit that part of a politician's life feel the encroachment, the invasion, the tarnishing. Did you see Hanover's face when she responded to her husband with her own press conference? That said it all.

It's hard enough to be swept into the limelight through no decision of your own. My father, Ronald Reagan, thankfully never used me as a speech prop. But my life still has a lot of fingerprints on it.

We can't just blame the media, or the politicians. The public's appetite is huge, and our will carries a lot of weight. At what point do we look at ourselves?

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