TIME For a Change: The Media Visualizes The Perfect President

TIME magazine's cover story for the week of March 16, 1998, focuses on the Hollywood release of "Primary Colors," which is based on the book of the same name. Inside, we have three articles about the movie, three more about Clinton's problems in office, and several about the manly wonder that is Bill Gates.

Their review of "Primary Colors" is headlined, "John Travolta: A voracious appetite for food and work." I can only imagine what that means. Is this going to be a glowing article about the famous emblem of masculinity and virility (for Grease fans, at least)... an interview conducted at lunch while the reporter admires Travolta's robust taste and courage to eat a whole porterhouse? Big appetites are masculine, a sign of someone who's not afraid to take anything on, including a massive meal.
That seems to be what the author meant. Jeffrey Resner's article begins, "That raspy drawl, the salt-and-pepper hair, a doughnut-stuffed belly hanging over his belt. Others in Primary Colors tried to steer clear of real-life inspiration; John Travolta became a Bill Clinton clone." Tsk, tsk, tsk; it's not nice to bash your governmental representatives like that while they're in office; it reveals too clearly how you'd like to influence your readership's vote.
Where Clinton is a raspy, soft-paunched old man, Travolta is shown as "dunking a taquito into a lump of guacamole," a businesslike quick gesture with fast food. Sure it's greasy, but it's a small portion. Two paragraphs down, Resner dives in to the appetite metaphor. "There's also the hunger for having it all, a voracious desire to devour life--and food." But not doughnuts, that's sissy stuff. "Aside from the Mexican chow consumed during this late-afternoon interview, a solicitous valet furnishes Travolta with a box of chocolate ladyfingers, mere snacks "to tide him over" until dinner." Uh-oh, he's slipping into the dangerous pastry realm. "Lunch can be an orgy of steamed lobster or an artery-choking beef Wellington." Phew - we've arrived safely in the land of butch dining. I really like the way they support the beef industry in its time of trouble by making "artery-choking" into a term of praise. And what could possibly convey a strong, manly, powerful personality better than an artery-choking, upper-class hunk of beef, or an even more expensive orgy of steamed lobster? Kudos to Resner for neatly picking out the menu items which simultaneously imply money, sexual prowess, muscle, power, and recklessness. You think I'm reading too much into this? Resner supports the class-based argument in the very next sentence: "His sister Annie marvels at this 'Vanderbilt' life-style, where 24-hour chefs cater to any food fantasy. Even during a marketing powwow for Primary Colors, Nichols recalls, 'everyone brought along sandwiches except John, who was served four or five different courses. It was not unlike taking a meeting with Henry VIII.'" The man's a king!
"Travolta keeps his plate full professionally too." Nice segue. "He turned down As Good As It Gets, Jackie Brown and Good Will Hunting but has seemingly appeared in every other film produced in the past three years." At least every other film produced by the major distributors in this country. Oh wait, that's not every other film produced in the past three years, now is it? Well, darn. So he's in everything now; "'I mean, he's gotta take some time off,' declares co-star Kathy Bates." Who the hell does she play? Hey, women are only good for giving quotes to support their menfolk anyway. "'Every time I turn around, he's in another picture. When I mentioned this to him at a party recently, he gave me this huge grin and said, 'Yeah, but isn't that the way it's supposed to be?'" Oh MY yes. And good for you, John, for being the leader of the free movie industry.
I can see his kindergarten report card now: "John is a friendly, outgoing child in all other respects, but he absolutely refuses to share.
"P.S. Could you please stop sending him to school with steak?"

And may I just say that Time's cover image of Travolta as Clinton, against their famous American flag background, is terrifying. I know it's just a plug for Primary Colors, (and since when did the media get SO buddy-buddy between its many genres that national magazines are devoted to pushing a single movie?), but the subtext of this image frightens me. I look at it, and I see a country where the media is just another branch of the government, and where we can hardly distinguish between the images Hollywood feeds us and those the government feeds us directly. Time's Eric Pooley seems to have prompted this eerie cover with his movie review, laying the movie and news stories about Clinton side by side and commenting, "Blurring fact and fiction is old hat by now, but the hat has never fit quite so snugly."

Meanwhile, Hollywood can refer to "[Lincoln's] shit-eating back-country grin," but Time has to print "s--- -eating." I wish they'd all decide who was going to censor what.

This column is almost a picture of TIME's ideal president. Sexual, as we know Clinton is, but also strong and reckless and unconcerned with healthy or environmentally sound eating. Undeniably, unescapably masculine, and since this is TIME magazine, you know that undeniable masculinity had better come in a male body, preferably a strong buff one. The President, if American media had its druthers, wouldn't share, or worry about stepping on anyone's toes, or be aware of feminism or queer rights or people of color any more than the media itself is. It must be nice to live in the media, instead of the real world.

Bill Gates: A Leader For The People

In the same issue, Bill Gates, the foremost and possibly most oppressive capitalist on the planet, is given space in TIME magazine for a fuzzy-wuzzy personal diary entry! A quote: "Tuesday is going to be interesting. It'll be great finally to get a chance to tell Microsoft's story--unfiltered--to members of Congress. I believe we haven't done a good enough job getting our point across: that to deny Microsoft the freedom to continue to add features like Internet functionality to Windows is to deny us the right to compete and give customers new products." Impassioned, down-to-earth, appealing to American Values. Whatever happened to truth and honesty?

Gates regales us with even more food images. TIME seems to know its meals; the sound bite for this article is, "He eats pizza, dons tux, hobnobs with stars." Almost makes him sound like a regular Joe, doesn't it? The pizza line comes from Gates' "Monday" entry: "We had a quick pizza for dinner. I went to bed early so I'll be fresh." Douche, man, douche!

Here the message isn't "Gates is a manly man with forthright manly food," as it was for Travolta. Here it's more like, "Gates is a manly, but sensitive man, who is Just Like You and Me." He is as good as TIME's staff writers at nudging us hither and yon. For example, he confesses that he played tourist and "showed [my wife Melinda] the flagpole where they run flags up and down all day so they can send flags to people all over the U.S. mentioning that they flew over the U.S. Capitol." It's almost like a hidden pictures game. How many inspirational images can you find in this single sentence? Family... traditional American family values, in fact. Patriotism... the U.S. government as government for the people. Simplicity... he spends the day strolling up the Capitol steps looking at a flagpole. And, of course... the flagpole itself. Run up and down all day long. Bill Gates has now been associated with the huge, patriotic, democratic FLAGPOLE of American masculinity as personified by the Family Man.

Tuesday, he stopped by "Senator (Patty) Murray's" office and shared a doughnut, remarking on how "It was great to have Senators Murray and [Slade] Gorton take me in." Now, I didn't see anything in this except more cameraderie and governmental cuddliness, until a fellow neofeminist heard the word "doughnut" and innocently observed, "Aren't doughnuts the female equivalent to flagpoles?" And you notice he's sharing it with a CongressWOMAN - could this be a subconscious need to assure us that he's no chauvinist pig? A moment of bonding with The Other Sex? Best of all, she and Gorton then "take [Gates] in." I mean, what is he going to say to Melinda that night? "I shared a symbol of female genitalia with Patty and then she, ah, took me in...." And don't try to tell me doughnuts aren't a female phallic symbol - the Romans had whole religious festivals centered around vulvic pastries, for goddess' sake.

Once Bill has dusted the crumbs and sprinkles off, (and why doesn't he TELL us what kind of doughnut it was? maple? bear's claw? jelly? I imagine it was old-fashioned, myself), we get to hear about the Congressional hearings. With disarming forgiveness, Bill confesses that "I was sitting on the right side of the speaker's table, and [Sun Microsystems'] Scott McNealy was next to me. Even though he doesn't like PCs and wants to put them out of business, he's a very charming guy." And what a president Gates would make, huh? He can disagree with a man, and still be best friends. We like having presidents named William. And we've already seen that he's capable of controlling large parts of the world!

Gates chatters on about how the hearings went, how nobody wanted any more regulation, how great it was that people stuck to their political beliefs. He's kinda like a friendly dog who wants to describe everyone in glowing terms. Of course, he doesn't want to be sued anymore, either.

This is the best part. Are you ready? So the hearings are over, and Gates gets on a plane and heads up to TIME's 75th anniversary dinner in New York. "When we got off the plane on Tuesday, there were two cars waiting. One was a white stretch limo. I got into the other car, since I think large cars are pretentious."

According to Bill Gates' Personal Wealth Clock, as I'm writing this he has $46.194600 billion. Let me say that again: Forty-six billion, one hundred and ninety-four million, six hundred thousand dollars. And a LIMO is too pretentious for him? Well hell, he's just a regular guy at heart, and he doesn't need any of this fancy big-car, adoring-millions stuff. He's just like any other guy on the street - never wears a tux, has to get his wife to put his cufflinks on, walks down 60 feet of red carpet past "a huge bank of cameras like they have at the Oscars, and nearly as many movie stars" on his way to a big dinner. Heck, maybe he has a little more money than we do, but he has the same wants and needs. After the really huge, corporate-sponsored, media-worshipped banquet, he and his wife head back to the hotel and "consider calling [our daughter] Jennifer at home. She is almost two, and we can ask her exciting questions like, 'What sound does a cow make?' I love the way she says 'Moo.'" He's looking forward to getting home, seeing Jennifer, and checking his email, because he "probably ha[s] 1,000 messages by now." But before he gets into the car to go to the airport, he has a burger and types his Poor Bill's Almanack. Fast, simple food for a fast, simple life.

TIME wants us to see Bill Gates as Everyman, ruling the corporate world for us, living just as we would. Travolta and Gates together make up the chosen leadership of TIME's America: middle-class mainstream values, pro-virility AND pro-family, rich AND unpretentious, burgers AND beef wellington, ever-so-slightly liberal but very safely entrenched in the status quo. It's McDemocracy, and it's on newsstands and movie screens nationwide as we speak.