Appearances and Their Effects

Erving Goffman in “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” defines “front” as an important element of the self – that is, the (often physical and context-specific) appearance that individuals give off and expect to have received by others in an expected context. He also notes,

“…appearance and manner may tend  to contradict each other, as when a performer who appears to be of higher estate than his audience acts in a manner that is unexpectedly equalitarian, or intimate, or apologeti, or when a performer dressed in the garments of a high position presents himself to an individual of even higher status.”

Once again, I couldn’t help but think of the current occupants of the United States’ executive branch, and the ways in which they repeatedly have violated the expected norms of status and manner. Perhaps the most egregious and direct example was Dick Cheney’s appearance at Auschwitz, but George W. Bush – a man whose image has been perhaps more aggressively managed than any otherPresident – is guilty of his own mismatches between presentation and appropriateness. I speak, of course, of Bush’s penchant for receiving/having designed for him innumerable jackets, hats, shirts, etc. emblazoned with his name and, most especially, “Commander-in-Chief.”

There has been in many conservative defenses of Bush a particular emphasis on how critics must respect (or are not respecting) the “office of the Presidency” or “the Commander-in-Chief.” Many draw on this as a particularly authoritarian line of defense, and while there is some of that, what’s more striking is the yawning disconnect between  these demands for “respect” and Bush’s own conduct. To be blunt: in some regards, he seems to treat the Presidency as an opportunity for souveniers. One could hardly ask for a behavior more demystifying of the United States’ highest office (and more indicting and affirming of the culture’s basest tendencies) than this sort of display of pure materialism. Wearing article of clothing after article of clothing that announces – in the same manner one might announce with a t-shirt from a midway tourist trap – the identity of the wearer is, by any standards: tacky. It’s not a reach to conclude that beneath this particular behavior lies a terrible insecurity – an insecurity over Bush’s deserving-ness of the office, and of the respect that his defenders demand be accorded him by virtue of the office – expressed in the most basic way possible: repeated written reminders that Bush is, indeed, the Commander-in-Chief.

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One Response to Appearances and Their Effects

  1. Mark says:

    Your point about souvenirs got me thinking about what Bush is going to do once he leaves office. There is not much doubt in my mind that he is mainly going to sit around in Crawford and reminisce about being President. Which is fine as far as it goes, but I can’t see him continuing as a major public or political figure in the way of, say, Bill Clinton or even George Bush senior. I suspect Al Gore will have much more influence on the direction of the country post-W than W himself will, and that is even assuming Gore does not become a candidate again.

    Anyway, I guess what I am saying is that Bush will need the souvenirs, because he is going to become extremely irrelevant extremely quickly once his term is up.

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