Exit, the Vicar of Visuals
Contrary to common belief even among the educated, (Aldous) Huxley and (George) Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think."
Neil Postman, 1985
On Saturday, August 18th, Michael Deaver died quietly at his home. From 1966 to 1985, he was steward to the political advancement of a dimming former TV and movie personality, Ronald Reagan. Deaver’s Washington Post obituary characterized him as the "Reagan Image-Maker" who "changed American politics." The Post reminded readers of Time magazine’s naming Deaver the "Vicar of Visuals." Post writer Patricia Sullivan called him a "media maestro who shaped President Ronald Reagan’s public image for 20 years." She asserted that he "introduced the ‘photo-op’ which positioned the former actor in visually irresistible locations where troublesome reporters’ questions could not intrude."
As a former ad-man/public relations guy, Deaver simply brought standard sales techniques (ordinarily used to convince people that they can’t live without some planet-killing disposable doo-dad) to the political arena. Of course, selling murderous thugs and morons to the population as "leaders and statesmen" has long been a staple of American politics. Deaver certainly broke no new ground there. But he happened along at a time when the country was ripe for a coup. With most of its institutions hollowed out and useless, the population addicted to the manipulative fantasy-world of television, and a media system too lazy and prostituted to resist or question Deaver’s "line of the day," the stage was set for the waging of class war from above.
Maybe you’ve noticed–it continues today.
Rather than advocate for particular policies in an intellectually serious and honest manner, Reagan’s class war was sold to the public through a series of attractive images. They had to be. Mark Hertsgaard observed in his useful 1988 work "On Bended Knee…" that the Reagan administration’s masterminds accomplished nothing less than, "one of the greatest government-engineered transfers of wealth in modern US history." Hertsgaard notes that since "Reagan’s extreme views put him well to the right of the majority of the American people." If he and his friends were going to pick their audience’s pockets they needed distractions. Said Reagan insider David Gergen (later advisor to Slick William Clinton), "The whole theory going in was, if we go to the country and just try to sell conservatism straight up, it’s not going to work." Enter Deaver and his understanding that "marketing a product required the same simple message over and over again."
So Reagan’s huge tax cuts for the wealthy and the cuts to Medicare, Social Security, housing and basic support for working people became "economic reform." When the reactionary cuts were passed, Deaver sent Reagan to a bar where the compliant press corps captured cynically manipulative images of him "hoisting a beer with the working stiffs." And so it went. The right-wing agenda was implemented and even if a few troubling details happened to make it into the coverage, there was always a comforting and masking image present to visually overwhelm unpleasant reality. In post-literate America, nobody of importance was paying much attention to the facts—least of all the fawning media.
Deaver’s obits often mentioned his spinning of the "housing starts" story. As newly deregulated loan policies were unleashed and massive deficit spending on weapons systems poured no-questions-asked money into the economy, a bubble began to form. Rather than simply announce that home construction numbers were up a bit, Deaver famously created a visual. He later recalled the 1983 effort. After some quick political analysis and picking the south as a key area, "…we flew down there and went up to a framed-up house with a couple of hard hats and Reagan had a sign in front of the house showing the line going up on housing starts. Now the press can say , ‘They brought us all the way down here to Fort Worth, Texas, just to make the President look good.’ But the guy sitting there with his six-pack that night is looking at it and saying [here Deaver imitated the viewer, leaning sideways and squinting at an imaginary television set], ‘What’s the President doing down there with those hard hats? Oh! Housing starts have gone up. Things must be getting better." (See, Hertsgaard, On Bended Knee…)
As Bill Moyers observed years ago, the sea-change that was accomplished by the Deaver crew (with connivance from supine corporate media minions) was to fundamentally alter the political landscape so that now constituencies were "courted not with policies but with images."
It’s a short hop to the present and our time of entrenched downward mobility, more bi-partisan tax cuts for the rich, more housing bubbles, ruthless loan-sharking, corporate crime, and murderous wars of aggression. Today it’s run out of an administration fronted by an old-money guy (cousin to the Queen of England) who courted a constituency by touting schizophrenic nonsequitors like "compassionate conservatism," affecting a cowboy personna and claiming a Reagan-like passion for "clearing brush" on his "ranch"—complete with mandatory photo-ops focusing on sweat, cowboy boots and big belt-buckle. Later, after "The Events of September 11th" the latter-day Deaver-ites ran a massive disinformation scam on the trembling public, and promptly attacked two defenseless countries.
The brush-cutter-in-chief donned a flight suit complete with bulging inflatable manhood protector and swaggered/waddled onto the Abraham Lincoln flight deck to announce (somewhat prematurely) a great victory in Mesopotamia. He served a plastic turkey to US mercenaries in that shattered land. He is not only post-literate, but apparently pre-verbal.
Mike’s tradition endures.
RICHARD RHAMES is a dirt-farmer in Biddeford, Maine whose place is just north of the Kennebunkport town line. When the swaggering cod-piece king is in town one dreams of Paris. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org