The Camera Lies

by David Crabtree


President Clinton is enigmatic. For years now I, and probably most Americans, have heard numerous allegations of wrong-doing by the Clintons and others in the White House. If the stories are true, President Clinton is a truly wicked and ruthless man. Whenever Clinton gives a speech or an interview, however, he seems disarmingly pleasant and boyish. It has always been hard to believe that all or even most of the charges could be true of the man we see on television. The image Clinton projects makes the allegations seem incredible—that kind of man could not do those kinds of things.

When the Monica Lewinsky story first broke, I was initially inclined to think Clinton was guilty. I had heard many stories of crimes and shady dealings that he had engaged in as governor in Arkansas. Over time I became convinced that he was probably a scoundrel, but some doubt remained because the stories did not seem to raise concerns among members of the press, who were in position to know much more about them than I. When it was revealed that Clinton had had an affair with a twenty-one-year-old intern and then lied about it in sworn testimony, I thought he had finally committed a misdeed for which the evidence was going to be unequivocal. But a few days later, when President Clinton appeared on television and forcefully denied having any sexual relationship with Monica, my conviction wavered. “How could anyone so boldly proclaim a bald-faced lie?” I reasoned. “He must be telling the truth.” For a few days I could not decide whether Clinton was guilty or just the victim of an elaborate hoax. I continued to follow developments closely to see if I could gain clarity as to whether Clinton was lying or not. Then I heard something that settled the issue for me.

A reporter, describing the relationship between Clinton and Vernon Jordan, claimed that Clinton and Jordan had a very close friendship because they had so much in common—both from the South, both attorneys, both ambitious, both powerful, both golfers, and so forth. As evidence of this kinship, the reporter cited an incident he had witnessed in which Clinton and Jordan were sitting at a table in a restaurant. Jordan made a flirtatious remark to one of the waitresses, and Clinton responded by saying something like, “This one is mine. You can have the blond.” Hearing this turned on a light bulb in my mind: Clinton was not who he seemed to be in his public appearances. In other words, his public image was very different from the real man. Having realized this simple fact, all reason to disbelieve the allegations in the Lewinsky matter evaporated.

I recall another incident when a similar realization took place. I was taking a class from a professor who frequently spoke out in favor of women’s rights. I assumed from his proclamations that he respected women and appreciated their contribution to society. Then one day in the department office, this professor walked in and immediately began chewing out one of the women secretaries in a disrespectful—and even cruel—manner. My perception of him changed immediately. He was passionate about the abstract concept of women’s rights, but that passion did not translate into respect for women. This professor was like the Communist party official in Cancer Ward about whom Solzhenitsyn said, “He loved the masses, it was people he couldn’t stand.”

As I thought about these two incidents (Clinton in the restaurant and my professor in the office), I began to reflect on how we discern the character of other people. I do not consider myself particularly gifted in the realm of discernment, but neither am I devoid of it. To accurately assess another person’s character, I need to observe him over a considerable period of time. Most importantly I need to see that person in unguarded moments. Unguarded moments are particularly important because people are constantly acting out roles. We want to appear different from what we really are. We are most careful to maintain this act when lots of people are watching. We are most likely to stop acting when either the audience is small or in times of surprise or stress.

I had a Russian teacher who at one time had been an instructor at a school which prepared British intelligence agents to work in the Soviet Union. He told us about a trick to determine whether someone is a native Russian speaker or not. You jab him with a hat pin. If he yells, “Oi!” he is a native Russian speaker. If he yells, “Ow!” he is a native English speaker. Similarly, when you see a person in unguarded moments you are seeing the real person rather than an act.

This puts us at a distinct handicap when it comes to analyzing the President or any other high-level politician. They hire advisors whose jobs are to make sure the politicians are never seen in truly unguarded moments. Speeches are carefully composed and choreographed to evoke just the right response from audiences, and apparently unguarded moments are created to make us feel like we have seen the “real” person. Thus acting skills are rapidly becoming a prerequisite for being elected to office at the national level.

What is image and what is the real person has become especially confused in recent years. We almost always see someone like the President on television, and television is a particularly deceptive medium. Malcom Muggeridge made the very astute observation that the camera always lies. He meant that the video camera, which records the lights and sounds just as they happen, gives us the illusion that we are a first-hand witness of what the camera records; we feel like we are there. There is a catch, however. In fact, we are getting just a small portion, and an edited one at that, of what we would have gotten had we really been there. The camera man chooses the angle, the lighting, the subject, and so forth. We are not free to see whatever we want to see. Although it appears we are seeing everything, we can only see what the cameraman lets us see. So the camera tacitly promises to give us the experience of actually being at an event while in fact it gives us only a selected portion of what really happened.

I remember walking across campus one day and hearing someone give a speech in front of the student union building. I stopped briefly to see what was going on. It was one more in an endless series of demonstrations against social injustice and corporate greed. The speaker stood on a podium speaking into a microphone, and two additional speakers sat behind him. Only about a dozen people were listening to the speaker, but it was a nice day and so quite a few people were lying on the grass eating lunch or sitting on the steps chatting or reading; they were paying little, if any, attention to the demonstration. Cameramen from three local television stations were recording this spectacle.

Later that day I happened to be watching a news program when a report on the university demonstration aired. The film footage astounded me. The demonstration looked rather large, with people all over the plaza. It was not obvious from the film that the vast majority of those present had nothing to do with the demonstration. The camera lied! While pretending to give the viewer first-hand experience of the event, it gave a distorted and misleading view of it. Muggeridge argued that this does not just happen sometimes; it happens all the time. The camera conjures up expectations that it can never fill. What we see on the film is never the same as “being there” in person.

Political operatives are aware of the deceptive nature of television. They devote huge amounts of time to thinking about what kind of image they want their candidate to project and then charting out ways to create that image. Whenever the cameras are on, the candidate must slip into his role. If a politician is a good actor, the public will never see him out of character. And yet someone like Clinton is on the television so frequently that we begin to feel like we know him well. So in modern America it is difficult for us to assess the character of our elected officials. We think we know them, but we do not.

“Character does not matter” has become a mantra to accompany discussion of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. As long as Clinton is doing a good job as president, it does not matter what he does in his private life. I beg to differ. He is our elected representative. I can not go to Washington and voice my opinion on every matter of government; my representatives deliberate over every matter of government for me.

What should I look for in a representative? No one is exactly like me, so I must vote for someone who will look at issues most similarly to me. Inevitably, candidates for office will share some of my views and not others. How do I choose whom to vote for in such cases? Since I am convinced that a sound understanding of morality is foundational to all human action, I need to vote for someone who shares my understanding of right and wrong. It is better to have a representative who shares my core values and who will vote in accordance with them than a representative who sees eye-to-eye with me on a handful of issues but on all other matters sees things entirely differently.

Rather than representatives who are merely politically orthodox, we need representatives who are of good character—both on and off camera. But at a time when this is our crying need, we are, ironically, in a very poor position to assess the character of the candidates. Understanding the nature of the challenge we face, however, is the first step toward overcoming it.

Copyright September 1998 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

David Crabtree