We so often hear people complaining that our politics has become nothing more than entertainment that we forget politics has always been a form of theater.
From the pageantry of medieval kings, to Andrew Jackson’s rollicking open-invitation inauguration, to JFK’s Camelot—politics has always self-consciously occupied a stage.
The difference between past epochs and now is that in the U.S. our politics is still theatrical, but there are no large characters playing a role.
Click Image to View Our Gallery of Monsters and Weenies
Nowadays, the last thing a politician wants is to appear in the public mind as a coherent figure delineated by conviction. Thus the general lament that no politician “stands for anything anymore.” Our politicians strive to come across as nothing more definite than a reliable and slightly romantic blur. This is what “spin” means. The great theatrical politicians didn’t spin. They declaimed and strutted and lied and betrayed and accomplished and failed, but they never tried to weasel out of their own personalities.
Cut to the current political season of compromise and bluster. If you will forgive a touch of Pixar and a dash of Facebook snark, what we were confronted with in 2009 were Monsters on the one hand—and Weenies on the other. Monsters act as a larger-than-life character without being one. Weenies become true characters only in retreat and disgrace, which makes them very small figures indeed.
The Monster: Insulting, slanderous, belligerent, bigoted, seemingly irrational, obsessed, driven by a fixed idea or ideas, spurred on by demons. Hints of inner torment. Indications of megalomania. Comes across as a “regular Joe,” “Everyman,” guy at the corner bar.
The Weenie: Reflective, ambivalent, equivocating, seemingly rational and pragmatic, fluid, eager to please. Sneaky and underhanded. Hints of buried secrets. Concerned with appearing virtuous. Often comes across as professorial, detached, arrogant.
Your successful Monster knows that “transparency” and “access” are in, and anything that smacks of secrecy is considered suspect. So the Monster creates the illusion of letting you see right through them. They appear to have no secrets. They tell you what they’re thinking: Lou Dobbs, Sarah Palin, Rick Perry. Or they seem to allow you to see through their emotions down to the dark wound that produced them: Glenn Beck.
Monsters are charismatic in the sense that they seem to be seized by intense feeling—obsession, hatred, revenge. This is why the slander of “You lie!” that Joe Wilson screamed at Obama when the president was addressing Congress has become the iconic moment for the Monsters. In one instant it captured the two primo Monster qualities: strong, almost deranging, feeling and absolute transparency of state of mind. From the left, Alan Grayson swooped in and—saying the Republican health plan was “don’t get sick” or “die quickly”—shared Wilson’s frenzied mantle.
On occasion, you will come across a good Monster. Nancy Pelosi might lack the old larger-than-life personality, but keeping her head down and sticking to her guns has served her well. A female politician in America needs a Weenie’s sneaky skills to avoid being stigmatized as a harridan or an airhead, yet Pelosi has retained her dignity without resorting to dubious tactics. She is a Monster of fortitude.
If Monsters are deliberately scandalous, they also are very good at avoiding real scandal. It is as if by acting scandalously, they are able to immunize themselves. Weenies, on the other hand, seem repeatedly to fall to scandal. Their unforgivable crime is that they had a secret; they were not forthcoming the way Monsters are. Mark Sanford’s confession and apology only made him look more secretive (ergo, Weenie). The preemptive confession of David Paterson (ditto) about his marital infidelity made him look not only sneaky, but sneaky about admitting his sneakiness.
Weenies also tend to be figures who have a heel on their neck. Forget Max Baucus’ girlfriend; Tiger had dozens. What makes him a Weenie is his infinite regression of concessions to the GOP. (Both Baucus and the Gumby-like Harry Reid remind me of a puppeteer I once knew who wanted to call her autobiography Strings Attached.)
Monster to his enemies, Weenie to a growing number of his supporters, Obama seems on the surface to be the perfect synthesis of the two types.
Likewise, Blanche Lincoln, Ben Nelson, Mary Landrieu (Weenie, Weenie, Weenie) seemed less to be acting on principle than on fears manipulated by the specter of midterm elections in 2010. Bobby Jindal—remember him?—was supposed to be the GOP’s newest Monster, until he became so eager to fulfill his party’s Monster criteria that he imploded in caricature. On the other hand, a tax-reducing, budget-cutting, government-slaying Monster like Arnold Schwarzenegger can have his nature suddenly terminated by events and be reduced to his essential sponginess—the body-builder’s inner Weenie—overnight.
Sometimes, absolute power weenifies absolutely. Al Franken was a Monster wit. Now he’s a priggish parliamentarian. I’m certainly no fan of Joe “The Grinch Who Stole Hanukkah” (read: Monster) Lieberman, but if you want to take him on, don’t passive-aggressively invoke congressional protocol to do it.
By contrast, when John McCain gave Franken a tongue-lashing for not allowing Lieberman another minute to finish his remarks on the floor of the Senate, you realized that—along with the late Teddy Kennedy—McCain, despite being temporarily weenified by the presidential campaign, is one of the last old school larger-than-life figures who is neither Monster nor Weenie, but a true personality.
A Weenie of Schwarzenegger’s proportions has its consolations for the spectator, but there are of course many small-time Weenies, who are no pleasure to behold. Think Olympia Snowe’s simpering, neurotic desire for reform (without real change). Mitt Romney’s bald-faced about-face from pro-choice governor of liberal Massachusetts to pro-life Republican candidate for president makes you long for the days when political scoundrels had real principles to betray. Romney’s smile has cockroach durability and probably would survive a nuclear attack. Weenies are blessed with beautiful smiles.
John Kerry is like a Weenie who one day long ago reluctantly signed a Faustian pact with the Devil and then... never heard from the Devil again. Kerry probably used to speed-dial him dozens of times a day.
Occasionally you will encounter a thoroughbred Weenie, a type of Weenie who is to the weaseling, weaselish manner born. A Weenie aristocrat, as it were. Christopher Dodd is just such a creature. As the French say: “C’est trop beau!” As chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, Dodd was getting sweetheart mortgages from Countrywide Financial even as he was bailing it out, and he also was taking campaign money from Fannie and Freddie, even as he was defending the two firms against a federal takeover. And he still had time to successfully lobby President Clinton to pardon a Bear Stearns buddy convicted of insider trading, someone who had helped Dodd—a regular real-estate diva—buy a cottage in Ireland on favorable terms. With Dodd, weeniehood becomes a creed.
There are hybrids. In the way he combines the Monster’s flaunted amorality and the Weenie’s secretive, purchased air, the aforementioned Joe Lieberman is a Monstrous Weenie.
Rahm Emanuel, on the other hand, is a Weenie-fied Monster, having attained a Democratic majority in Congress only by bringing in a band of conservative Democrats who water down every progressive initiative. He thinks a Pyrrhic victory deserves a parade down Fifth Avenue. For the blustering Rahm, the important thing is to bring a nice report card home to Mom, even if the only way to get an A is to repeat the teacher’s words back to him, word for word.
Hillary Clinton? Recovering Monster. During the presidential campaign last year, Samantha Power rightly called Clinton a “Monster” because, as Power put it, “she is stooping to anything” to win. (An admirable outburst of real passion and honesty, for which Power was promptly punished by the mediocre mob.) Back then, Hillary fulfilled other Monster traits, most notably that she traveled with her very own demon by her side, Bill. Now, however, she is entirely the president’s creature. When asked in Kabul by an Afghan journalist if the United States would support a Karzai cabinet filled with warlords, Clinton replied: “Well, there are warlords and there are warlords.” Imagine if George Shultz had said, “Well, there are juntas and there are juntas”? Like some Manchurian candidate, Hillary has internalized the essence of the Weenie’s equivocating “pragmatism.”
Finally, there is The One himself. Monster to his enemies, Weenie to a growing number of his supporters, Obama seems on the surface to be the perfect synthesis of the two types. When he’s giving a speech, you think he’s speaking his heart; after the speech is over, you wonder what he’s hiding. He is the most secretive of transparent men. He declares his intentions like a true Monster of explicitness, but withdraws and compromises without end like a Weenie who just wants to be liked. He’s an activist like a Monster but reflective and hesitant like a Weenie. History has endowed him with the charisma of an unprecedented presidency, and so he seems the creation of higher powers. Then conflicting interests converge, and he allows himself to be pulled this way and that by more ordinary forces until he disappears into thin air. He stays aloof, engages, and then vanishes, all the while allowing a forest of extenuating circumstances to grow between the public and himself. He is so calculatingly elusive that the buck never reaches him.
Perhaps Obama is, as his fans have always said, the new man of a new age. All things to all people, he offers the illusion of true transparency. In the end, he does not present a larger-than-life character, which at this point is an insult to democracy. Rather, you look right through him to clouds in the shape of whatever you happen to be hoping for.
Lee Siegel is The Daily Beast's senior columnist. He publishes widely on culture and politics and is the author of three books: Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: How the Web Is Reshaping Culture And Commerce—And Why It Matters. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.