The perils and politics of acting human for public figures

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The impact of Robin Williams' suicide seemed different. Celebrity deaths will always be with us, and they've multiplied since there have been more celebs, in endless gradations, living longer, then dying.

But Williams' death seemed personal, as if you knew him, though of course he didn't know you. You knew him not via interviews or exposés but through his work. He didn't appear to vanish into or behind it; it was him doing the part or bit. It had the feel of kabuki theatre or what Bertolt Brecht called the actor's distancing effect: you knew he was creating it; he shared its fabricated quality, as if he was holding up a vibrant, animated mask but peeking out from behind it frequently. Maybe it was a sense of his vulnerability that bridged between the actor and the act. Compare Lauren Bacall, who also died last week: she was always concealed behind her parts. No bridge, no peeking out.

Being yourself or "human" as a public figure is way harder than it seems. It holds for politicians, too. Try acting normal, it's not normal to consciously do that in public. Take poor Ed Miliband, leader of the U.K. Labour party, who has a painfully awkward, unappealing public presence. He tried facing it head-on last month in a painful, awkward speech. "I am not from central casting," he whinged. "You can find people who are more square-jawed, more chiselled, look less like Wallace" -- from Wallace and Gromit. "If you want the politician from central casting, it's just not me." It felt totally premeditated and manipulative.

Sound familiar? Think of Tim Hudak during June's election debate. "Look, I'm not gonna be the best actor on the stage. I'm not gonna get up here and give a great performance." It was a rehearsed shtick, a shucks/shtick. He did it with the rictus grin that others -- NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, U.S. neo-con Bill Kristol -- paste on, presumably because experts tell them they look too stern.

What's the real problem here? Nothing fails like trying to look human or show your human side: it's inhuman to attempt to prove you're human. Kathleen Wynne sounded bad and looked flustered answering questions on corruption in that debate, but flustered is human, so she also made ground, by contrast with the "human" effects well-prepped by her opponents.

Human is human. There's no formula. Pierre Trudeau looked human by not seeming to give a crap whether anyone cared if he looked human. It was effective. Master strategist Dalton Camp, who ran the PC campaigns then, told me he had to tell the party leader, Robert Stanfield, "I can't beat this guy."

Now Justin is pulling off the same thing though not in his dad's way, which would be fatal. He's warm, ebullient, spontaneous. It seems real, which is as much as we'll ever know. When he apparently improvised a new anti-abortion policy at a scrum, he looked befuddled by the questions. "Uh, that is an issue that, uh" -- then he takes a really long pause as if lost in thought, remembers the press are there, tries again: "I've committed in my ... " Then cheerily gives up: "Well, it is a tough one." Says he'll give it more thought. Pundits felt he dug his own grave. The National Post's John Ivison was befuddled himself: he said that moment handed Justin "five weeks of bad press," yet he "still looks golden." The Globe's Jeffrey Simpson is similarly stumped about Mulcair: he's "shone in the House of Commons," yet isn't "connecting to voters." Maybe if Simpson couldn't make his own direct "connections" to Mulcair, he'd be less stymied.

My own view? Faced with candidates none of whom is discernibly human, voters will look for something to judge on: sunniness, mellifluousness, square jaw. What the candidates say is never enough since it's all obviously calculated. But faced with one candidate who's discernibly human, they'll tilt in that direction for, well, human reasons. It's like spying a fellow creature in the wilderness. It may not suffice but it's a sizable advantage.

The adorable thing about that abortion clip is it could appear in Conservative or Liberal ads: as proof the guy's in over his head or that he's a certifiable human.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Mohammad Jangda/flickr

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