Obama's Visit to His Ill Grandma: Refreshingly Genuine

It is perhaps too much to expect genuineness from our candidates for high office. Since the founding of the republic, candidates for president have presented a version of themselves to the voter their own mothers would hardly recognize. Even Washington was not immune from this kind of image-building.

Chairing the Constitutional Convention in 1787, George Washington sat stoically while debate raged about what powers to grant the chief executive. Some members wanted nothing to do with creating the office of president, believing it smacked of monarchy. Others saw a strong executive as a necessity -- a head of state the nation could rally to in times of crisis.

Despite not saying a word, Washington was dominating the debate simply because everyone in the hall knew who would be the first president. There was no question in anyone's mind that they were enumerating powers that would be exercised by the silent, heroic figure in front of them. Washington cultivated this image of hero/statesman. He was still the toast of Europe and worshiped at home after having shocked everyone by resigning his commission rather than doing what victorious generals usually did -- ride in on a white charger and set himself up as a king or dictator.

Washington's great biographer James Flexner writes how carefully Washington nurtured and promoted this image of himself despite being beset by self doubt and worry that he wouldn't be remembered by history quite as kindly as his contemporaries viewed him. In truth, the public face of Washington was as different from the real man as almost any politician we know today.

Lincoln promoted himself as a rail splitting, log cabin living backwoodsman despite hating manual labor and schooling himself to get away from the drudgery of life on the frontier.

Teddy Roosevelt was a reckless soldier, so hungry for a glorious victory in the Spanish-American War that he began the charge up San Juan Hill without orders. He lost more men to heat exhaustion than to Spanish bullets and other officers played a more important role in taking the heights, but it was TR, with a genius for self-promotion, who made himself a hero along with his regiment with the catchy name of the "Rough Riders" (they were actually dismounted cavalry and Roosevelt was the only one on a horse when they reached the summit).

Ronald Reagan used to ride horses using English tack, dressed in hip boots and jodhpurs, looking quite handsome but hardly like a western hero. Reagan's handlers were horrified that he was about to meet the press looking like an English dandy rather than John Wayne. From then on, Reagan was never seen in jodhpurs again.

Today, the candidates have a team of image makers -- people who are responsible for creating a portrait of the candidate for the TV cameras. Each stop on the campaign is carefully stage-managed with the proper background and other visuals. Each ad is pored over frame by frame, line by line, until the exact effect is achieved. Speeches are written to appeal to specific groups using language tested and retested on focus groups to gauge the emotional reaction of the audience.

It's about as genuine as Pamela Anderson's cleavage.