"From the earliest days of the American republic to the present, those seeking the nation's highest office have had to tell persuasive stories – about the nation, its problems and, most of all, about themselves."
Evan Cornog, American political historian
The opinion that the success of politicians is proportionate to the interest of the media towards their personalities and that, under increasing media coverage of election campaigns, the candidates themselves are the carriers of the message, rather than the political programs they represent, has gradually been established in modern political sociology. In other words, the important thing is what voters think about the candidates, not what the candidates think about this or that issue. In this regard, the identity of a politician and his/her ability to establish emotional contact with voters through the media becomes crucial; whilst being able to tell persuasive stories about himself/herself is central for persuading voters. This well-tested modern political technique is called storytelling.
Storytelling of Western type....
At a national convention of the U.S. Democratic Party held in Boston in the spring of 2004, the honor of being the keynote speaker was awarded to a young senator from Illinois, Barack Obama. The main aim of such party conventions is to approve candidates for the presidential race, therefore the keynote speaker traditionally takes time to praise those candidates. In that year, the selectee of the Democratic Party was the current U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. However, in violation of the established tradition, the keynote speaker Barack Obama only mentioned John Kerry's name in the ninth minute of his speech. The young senator from Illinois spent the majority of his address telling the story of his origins and praising the American political system. "Tonight is a particular honor for me because, let's face it, my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely," Barack Obama declared at the beginning of his keynote address. He then recounted that his father, who was born in a small village in Kenya, grew up herding goats, whilst his grandfather was a cook, a domestic servant to the British.But my grandfather had larger dreams for his son", the Illinois Senator continued, "through hard work and perseverance my father got a scholarship to study in a magical place, America, that's shown as a beacon of freedom and opportunity to so many who had come before him." Obama then went on to tell the story of his other, white, grandfather – a typical American patriot who signed up for duty the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and when he returned from the war he and his wife had "big dreams" for their daughter – to give her a good education. Obama's parents met each other in America, got married and when their son was born they gave him an African name, Barack, or blessed, "believing that in a tolerant America, your name is no barrier to success," the Senator said. Mr. Obama's further career certainly proved that his parents were not wrong.
By somewhat sidelining John Kerry and telling persuasive stories about himself, Barack Obama definitely managed to get the most out of the circumstances existing at the Boston convention. After the emotional, well-calculated speech, the previously little known Illinois Senator became a politician on the national stage and one of the leading figures in his party. While that convention served to illuminate Obama's identity and promote him, the helpless messages chosen by John Kerry and his poor storytelling in general, helped the Democrat candidate lose the 2004 election. One of lead strategists of the Democratic Party, James Carville, explained the reasons for that defeat: "They [Republicans] produce a narrative. We [Democrats] produce a litany. They say, 'I'm going to protect you from the terrorists in Tehran and the homos in Hollywood.' We say, 'We're for clean air, better schools, more health care.' And so there's a Republican narrative, a story, and there's a Democratic litany."
It is worth noting that when using storytelling, Western politicians often expose details of their own lives that might seem disadvantageous at first blush. The reason for doing so is perhaps that today, under the conditions of total media coverage, it makes no sense to hide any detail because journalists will still dig up the truth. When during the 1992 presidential campaign Bill Clinton was asked whether he had ever tried marijuana, Clinton responded that he had but did not inhale. In this case, and taking into account the context of that campaign, the main issue was rather deeper than just Clinton's sincerity. Given his womanizing character and the number of scandalous stories that had emerged, the Democratic Party's candidate had the reputation of being an untrustworthy person. A dogmatic, Anglo-Saxon puritanical vision – "if he lies to his wife, he will lie to the entire nation," jeopardized Clinton's chances of becoming the president. On the other hand, it was well known that Clinton had studied at Oxford University in the late 1960s and, for well-versed people, it was absolutely clear the kind of things that went on in Western European higher education institutions at that time. Consequently, had Clinton denied ever trying marijuana, his reputation for being a liar would have been further strengthened. In this regard, Clinton chose the best option: yes, he tried it, but did not inhale, i.e. he did not like marijuana.
In general terms one can say that the best means of storytelling is the publication of an autobiography; a book in which a politician highlights the best episodes of his/her life, creates a solid, clear picture about his/her identity and, at the same time, sends important messages to the voters. Going back to Barack Obama, in his books Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope, the current U.S. President portrayed himself as the son of an ordinary middle class American family, despite his African roots. By doing so, Obama showed that in the capacity of a politician he was the candidate of the American people and not just the African American community.
...and of Georgian typeWhile the publication of autobiographies is common practice, and even a sort of imperative, in the Western political space, Georgian politicians cannot boast much in this regard. There are, however, a few exceptions. A couple of Georgian politicians have published their autobiographies and thereby provided examples of storytelling. For example, former President Mikheil Saakashvili, with the assistance of his personal advisor Raphael Glucksmann, published a book in French – Je vous parle de liberté (I Speak About Liberty), in late 2008. The book contains an abundance of biographical elements, helping us to gain deep insight into his personality and to understand his image. One of the chapters of the book titled "Youth Spent in the Soviet Union" is especially interesting. In this chapter, Saakashvili recounts that his mother had him study English "from when he was five years old" while the formation of his mindset was largely influenced by his teacher of French, Mara Chavchavadze, who was raised in emigration and then went through Stalin's gulags. "It is easy to understand her extreme hatred of the Soviet system and it was she that passed onto me the determination to deny any compromise with everything Soviet.
ven though everyone in my family was more or less anti-Soviet, she (i.e. Mara Chavchavadze) enabled me to intellectually realize this instinctive negation," wrote Mikheil Saakashvili. Consequently, the portrait depicted in the book is of a personality who was politicized, cherishing anti-Soviet sentiments from a very young age: a person who read the texts of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and listened to interviews of Andrei Sakharov, Yelena Bonner, and Vladimir Bukosvky on the English-language radio service of Voice of America.
In this context, it is worth noting a typical example of storytelling provided by Saakashvili: at the age of 13, when his parents took him sightseeing in Moscow, he joined up with a group of foreign tourists, passed by a KGB officer standing guard at the door to watch foreign tourists, entered the hotel Intourist (the hotel that back then was only intended for visitors from countries outside the Soviet Union), and in the lobby of this hotel he bought a copy of French newspaper Le Monde. "I keep this newspaper as a relic. I must have read the articles in this newspaper 10 or 12 times each," Saakashvili recounted. By telling this story, the former president, in fact sends several messages to readers: first, he reinforces that at that young age he was already extremely politicized (Le Monde is not children's literature);
second, that he was a determined person (he took a risk getting past the KGB officers); and third, that he was already intellectually developed because he was able to read difficult texts in a foreign language. It is interesting that Saakashvili has never told a story of this type to the Georgian media. Instead, we often heard his stories about how in his childhood, "tough guys" often tried to oppress him without any result. It turns out that Mr. Saakashvili had one form of discourse for the Western audience and another for his compatriots. This is not at all surprising considering different national characteristics and the capacity to perceive storytelling. The extent to which the recollections of a politician are considered trustworthy will ultimately depend on the political taste and interpretation of the reader.
A similar picture of a personality politicized from a very young age was depicted by the former foreign minister of Georgia, Salomé Zourabichvili, in her autobiographical book Towards Georgia. It is noteworthy that the title of the initial French-language edition of this book is Une femme pour deux pays (A Woman for Two Countries), which indicates the dual French-Georgian identity of Ms. Zourabichvili and her efforts to simultaneously serve two homelands. The idea of being caught between these two homelands is the leitmotif of the entire book: the first example of political "activity" cited is purely French – a very young Salomé, together with her friends from the lyceum, putting up placards of the Organisation de l'armée secrète or OAS (a French dissident paramilitary organization during the Algerian War of 1954–62); thereafter she, along with her Georgian peers, becomes involved in anti-Soviet activity: ".... we also drew up various plans of liberating Georgia; we planned protest rallies against visits of high officials from the Soviet Union to France." Later, Salomé Zourabichvili, being an employee of the Quai d'Orsay, the Foreign Affairs Ministry of France, managed to combine her job as the head of a responsible mission (negotiations on conventional arms control conducted under the auspices of OSCE in Vienna) with that of a Georgian patriot (publishing, under a pseudonym, articles about the 9 April 1989 tragedy in Tbilisi, when an anti-Soviet demonstration was dispersed by the Soviet Army, resulting in 20 deaths and hundreds of injured, in the French print media).
Saturated with politics, Ms. Zourabichvili personally knows many influential people, not only in France (Dominique de Villepin, Yves-Thibault de Silguy, Catherine Colonna) but also in the U.S. (Richard Perle, Brent Scowcroft, Helmut Sonnenfeldt). Even more, she used these contacts to draw their attention towards the fate of Georgia integrated into the USSR. For example, the book describes an episode when Zourabichvili, traveling as a member of a government delegation, had the chance to appear in front of then French President Giscard d'Estaing: "...it is 26 May – the day of Georgia's independence. I cannot believe that this is a mere coincidence of dates.... I shall not miss this chance, it is as if I was given a special mission. I must talk to him about Georgia, explain to him that France must not stay indifferent towards 'oppressed nations'." Consequently, Salomé Zourabichvili's idea was that France "as a country which defends human rights" should outstrip events, establish direct contact with the republics of the USSR and thus, at the time of the inevitable demise of the Soviet empire, find itself in the forefront of the free world. In 1978, such an idea would have sounded utopian, but in hindsight, considering the course of subsequent events and assessing the extremely weak position of France in the post-Soviet space, Zourabichvili's attitude of the time was indeed visionary.Several passages in this autobiography are eye-catching; particularly those which introduce sentimental elements in the narration and serve to construct a humane and somewhat "available" image.
ecalling first meeting her future husband, Janri Kashia, Salomé Zourabichvili writes: "...once I saw him I thought to myself that something will change in my life. When from a balcony of my apartment at Parc Monceau I saw him entering my yard, it struck me – 'this is a man of my life!'." If such sentimentalism would be unacceptable in the memoirs of a male public figure, the description of the emotions of a female politician would not prove damaging to her image; on the contrary, it enriches it. Even the storytelling of the "Iron Lady" of Israeli politics, Golda Meir, in her autobiography My Life, did not shun from recalling her tears on the first day in office: "From that moment it became clear to me that decisions I take will affect the daily lives of millions of people. I think it was for this reason that I wept."