Current Issue #488

Modern Times: Face-changing political leaders

Modern Times: Face-changing political leaders

Often, politicians seem to channel the ancient face-changing performance art of Bian Lian when they achieve high office, writes Andrew Hunter.

Born out of the tradition of Sichuan opera, Bian Lian deploys colourful masks that change from one face to another with a simple hand gesture or movement of the head.

The effect can be both spectacular and mystifying. The techniques used have been kept secret and passed within families from one generation to the next.

It is common for political leaders to suddenly change face, leaving their audience mystified or confused. When these masks change, voters get a different perspective of the same actor. This transition so often coincides with the power and influence that comes with the attainment of high office. Sometimes, face-changing occurs when high office beckons. It sometimes brings the politician closer to the electorate. Sometimes it takes them further away. But the face-changing never fails to reveal.

Prior to his ascension to the presidency, Lyndon Johnson was understood to be the ultimate pragmatist. He once remarked that it was “not the job of a politician to go around saying principled things”. Robert E. Caro explained in his excellent, four-volume work on the career of Lyndon Johnson that “although the cliché says that power always corrupts, what is seldom said but equally true is that power always reveals”.

Only following the assassination of JFK did Johnson blow the dust hidden in his hand and, like an expert Bian Lian actor, reveal a more compassionate aspect to the American people. Johnson immediately acted in favour of civil rights and taxation reform, and launched an unconditional war on poverty through improvements to schools, health, housing, training and job opportunities. Within two months of becoming president of the United States, in the most challenging context imaginable, he had set a course that made possible the transformation of American society.

Other politicians have changed their face before achieving ultimate power. Caro noted that “when a man is climbing, trying to persuade others to give him power, concealment is necessary: to hide traits that might make others reluctant to give him power”. In the case of French President Francois Mitterrand, his deft concealment made the public wary of what he might do with the trappings of power. Mitterrand had released an exciting program that would bring radical change to France, but despite this, the public found his calculating nature to be unworthy of their trust.

Another technique deployed by Bian Lian actors requires greasepaint hidden in eyebrows to be dragged across the actor’s face with a deft movement of the hand. At the beginning of the campaign that would ultimately deliver Mitterrand the presidency, he revealed to his audience his sincere commitment to progressive change by supporting the abolition of capital punishment in France. This decision carried significant risk, as the overwhelming majority of his countrymen still supported the death penalty.

The mask of political calculation was replaced with one which was more believable. The face of calculation became that of conviction. Within a year of his election, French workers were given a fifth week of paid annual leave, the retirement age was lowered to 60 from 65 years, minimum wage went up and job insecurity down. And capital punishment was abolished. Mitterrand served as President until 1995.

Keating and Howard were familiar faces to the public prior to winning Australia’s highest political office. Since 2007, however, the face-changing of our political leaders has been more frequent and beguiling than the secretive but spectacular art of Bian Lian. If voters knew what to expect of Abbott (but somehow voted for him anyway), other recent protagonists in our national life have presented ever-changing faces to the Australian people.

Rudd’s time on centre stage recalled another favoured technique of Bian Lian actors. Hidden masks changed his face red, green, blue and black to reflect his changing moods of happiness, hate, anger and sadness respectively. Gillard was presented early in her career as the face of the socialist left. In office, income inequality was reduced but a conservative approach to social issues – same-sex marriage, asylum seekers – left her audience confused.

Turnbull was, prior to his election as prime minister, reputed to present a dry economic vision but a more human face on social issues. This has proved misleading. Power reveals. When the mask is removed and only timidity remains, the audience is left wanting more. His current opponent has, intriguingly, yet to reveal a face his audience can easily discern.

Such is modern Australian politics.


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