Politicians' desire to show their human side could backfire

People don't want laughing, joking people. They want to elect leaders

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There used to be a time when it was enough for politicians to do politics. No more. These days, they also have to look and sound more "human."
Whether it's fake or spontaneous, they are expected to show their emotional side and share parts of their private lives. Advisers want voters to identify with a leader as a person.
So it's no surprise that pundits said Hillary Clinton's near tearing-up clinched the female vote in the New Hampshire primary, by finally making her look more emotional, more human, more like them. It's a sure bet this new side of Clinton will become a central part of her strategy to fight the more passionate Barack Obama.

In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy is an expert at what the French call the "pipolisation" of politics, an expression derived from People magazine. With his collaboration, magazines covered his marriage and break-up. With his popularity declining, stories of his love affair with and impending marriage to former model Carla Bruni are now taking over.
Although this phenomenon is growing, it isn't new. In the 1960s, Trudeaumania was partly the product of Pierre Trudeau's ideas. But it was also the result of his playboy image and the famous women he dated. Later, his marriage and divorce as well as his family life were closely linked to his persona as political leader.
To humanize his image, Bernard Landry appeared on Star Académie - a TV show with huge ratings - when he was premier. His girlfriend at the time, Chantal Renaud, a much-liked former vedette, also made the rounds of talk shows and magazines.
Even Stéphane Dion now wants to play up his more touchy-feely side. Still unpopular in his home province, he hired Jacques Ouimette, an effective image-maker from show biz. His mission: Make Dion look more sympathetic. His strategy: Send him to talk shows and political humour TV shows. On New Year's Eve, Dion closed the show Infoman by inviting its popular host to his home for a game of Twister.
Last week, Premier Jean Charest, with his wife, held the first open-house day at the National Assembly. He greeted voters in a relaxed atmosphere. This produced images of Charest chatting with smiling people - quite a shift from the public harangues he got from angry citizens during last spring's election campaign.
Last summer, Pauline Marois tried to shed her bourgeois image by inviting a reporter into her "humble" summer cottage in Charlevoix. But that humanizing strategy backfired when Infoman broadcast shots of her much less humble domaine on Île Bizard.
Then they both made a mistake. Charest and Marois appeared in an ad for a talk show hosted by Marc Labrèche. Riding the coattails of this immensely popular comedian was harshly criticized. The consensus was that politicians shouldn't sell anything other than their ideas.
The omnipresence of the media in voters' lives is the culprit. This is also the era of reality shows, public confessions on TV and Youtube, much less that of town-hall meetings. At this game, images and the trivial can overpower ideas.
The paradox is that far from humanizing leaders, I think it does the reverse. The multiplication of these image-driven, non-political attention-seeking devices devalue the already devalued profession of politician. By mixing the private and the political too much, party leaders unwillingly contribute to their own loss of prestige as people we elect, after all, to lead.
But politicians are trapped in a vicious circle. If they take part in the media image game, they feed into their own loss of prestige. They also enter into a highly time- and energy-consuming activity that eats away at their real job, which is already demanding enough.
But the cruel fact is that being seen on TV laughing and telling cute stories sometimes gets more votes than debates or policies. And if a leader doesn't do it, then his adversaries will - and probably will benefit from it.
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