Jack tanner, perhaps the most logically consistent presidential candidate ever to grace our fair nation’s airwaves, is blown in the bottle. Like a genie granting the wishes of all who fear that our fledging democracy is on the brink of collapse, candidate Tanner is the first politician to fully appreciate modern-day media culture for what it is. On first blush, we might think of Tanner as less genuine than his rivals. After all, Michael Murphy, who portrays the dark horse, is only an actor performing for a cable television public, while the other candidates in the heated 1988 presidential campaign have a large political apparatus behind them. Yet, if we twist our thinking caps around, we may appreciate Tanner as more genuine than the other potential nominees. For aren’t the actions of all presidential candidates nowadays orchestrated around video cameras? Each aims to land the position of “leader of the free world,” yet each appears as an actor preparing for a screen test. And isn’t Jack Tanner the only one to admit as such?
The machinery necessary to create a television show is not so different than the machinery that runs a political campaign. Witness, if you will, the creation of a political personality when Tanner’s minions set up an office that produces the ubiquitous bumper stickers, buttons, and posters. Tanner makes campaign speeches, participates in debates, and pulls together a prospective cabinet. He attends rallies, receives advice from his political peers, develops slogans, determines strategies, forms focus groups, and appears in commercials. In respect to his engagement with the televised political process, Tanner is fully committed. Once his campaign gathers steam, his public and private life slowly merge. Fact and fiction bump and grind. Tanner ’88 is the original reality television.
Tanner’s campaign plays a novel gambit: While his opponents direct their actions at television cameras as a means of creating public personae and gaining political influence, Tanner campaigns as an end in itself. During the Enlightenment, just as the American idea came into fruition, some philosophers argued that goodness consists in treating others as ends, not as means. Tanner must be the embodiment of such goodness. He treats his public image as an end in itself, not a mere means to attain the coveted office. His creators, Robert Altman and Garry Trudeau, insist that Tanner is “for real.” Withal he is, compared with more ordinary candidates, more real. The actions of all our politicians are at best contrived, if not on occasion outright disingenuous, while Tanner’s actions are precisely as they appear to be. Tanner has no ulterior motive, no agenda other than the one he presents to the rolling cameras. Tanner thoroughly embraces the medium that gives him life. He cannot hide private designs behind publicly stated ones. He is the way he is perceived.
So, we may understand the logic of Tanner’s candidacy as a bona fide tautology, one whose empty content multiplies meanings beyond their apparent purposes. Tanner ’88 transcends its role as a form of representation about the world and encapsulates a peculiar species of action in the world. Think of Tanner not as a pretend candidate, but a novel kind of one. He does not mirror the electoral process and critique it, as we might suppose, but gains access to the workings of that process and physically interacts with it. In comparison with the scripted scenarios that continue to pass themselves off as actual debate in American elections, the climax of the HBO series, in which the 1988 Democratic convention is on the brink of becoming an open forum, is one of the most engaging political events in recent memory.
The Tanner campaign consequently exemplifies nothing less than a step forward in the history of representation. If the work of artist Jasper Johns foregrounds the problem, Altman and Trudeau up the ante: They invent an art that abandons imitation—which art has been chastised for since Plato's Republic—in order to fully wed a representation with the object it represents. Just as Johns' paintings of American flags and bull's-eye targets are themselves substantive examples of flags and targets (for flags and targets are simply flat images to begin with), Tanner's televised bid for the presidency is the logical conclusion of American political life. Tanner is an image through and through, a two-dimensional character whose candidacy attests to the sheer power of art, through the verisimilitude of its images.
Gary Kornblau founded Art issues Magazine and Art issues Press. He currently teaches philosophy at Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena, California. An earlier version of this essay was published in Art issues, number nineteen, September/October 1991. copyright Gary Kornblau (revised 2004).