The Blurred Line Between Interesting and Incriminating

Lisa Van Dusen/For The Hill Times

October 10, 2019

The political wince-o-meter that once delineated interesting from incriminating is broken. The results are about what you’d expect.

Among the consequences of the recent, bizarre decoupling of character from electoral success has been the eradication of settled conventional political wisdom on how much “interesting” is too much “interesting” in a candidate.

When Boris Johnson was mayor of London, his mutinous hair and quippy gob were interesting because there was only so much damage he could do while governing 8 million people within 600 square miles. That he is now prime minister and evidently bent on driving Britain over a no-deal Brexit cliff has raised serious questions about not just his sanity but about whose fault his hair has really been all along.

When Donald Trump was a non-political reality show character, his unbridled pussy grabbing and mobby deviational ethics were of limited interest because, again, the stakes were relatively low no matter where you came down on the momentous Meat Loaf-Gary Busey Celebrity Apprentice fracas. As president of the United States, his most unseemly idiosyncracies have been inflated and distorted into apparent threats to global peace, national security and democracy as we know it.

The gravity-defying trajectories of these men have recalibrated the political calculations on the demarcation between interesting and incriminating. This has produced a series of rudderless content mutations, from Justin Trudeau’s Passage to India foray to Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke’s livestreamed ear-hair trimming to former Democratic presidential hopeful John Hickenlooper’s admission that he once took his own mother to see Deep Throat.

There’s a French expression — se faire l’intéressant(e). It means to show off — to “make oneself interesting”. It is best used wryly, as when one screws up spectacularly — “Yes, I accidentally posted video of my prostate exam on Instagram. I was just trying to make myself interesting.” It now seems to be invading political culture as a dubious strategic communications option.

An excellent recent example is Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s resumé-padding controversy. Mr. Scheer, who seems like a genuinely nice guy — the kind of guy you’d borrow a weed-whacker from or ask to watch your laptop at Starbucks while you go to the loo and be reasonably confident that he won’t sell it for molly — was revealed to have lied on his resumé.

Mr. Scheer took the risk of getting caught padding his curriculum vitae — presumably to make himself interesting — by falsely claiming to have been not an inductee of the Everest Seven Summits Club or a Mensa member or a Tantric sex guru but a … licensed insurance broker. In the process, he created a new category on the interesting vs. incriminating spectrum for political scandals that are at once incriminating and deeply, monumentally uninteresting. Luckily for him, it was overtaken by the exposé that he holds dual Canada-U.S. citizenship, which is now — until he reveals that he once took his own mother to see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang — the most interesting thing about Mr. Scheer.

There was a time when “interesting” meant that a candidate spoke fluent Mandarin or was friends with Mick Jagger — in the case of the late, inveterately square finance minister Michael Wilson — from their days at LSE. Today, Johnson faces a possible prison sentence over his relationship, while mayor, with a stripper-pole fluent entrepreneur and Cartoon Network honeytrap who gave him “technology lessons” (officially, the new “hiking the Appalachian trail”) at her Shoreditch flat and received a £100,000 grant from Johnson’s promotional firm.

Meanwhile, a man who paid hush money to a porn star is concocting incrimination about a political rival who wouldn’t know a stripper pole from a barge pole, as shock polls and surreal election results empower players seemingly intent on teaching the world the lesson that personality in politics can be harnessed for massive harm as well as epic good.

As though that were news.

Lisa Van Dusen is associate editor of Policy Magazine and a columnist for The Hill Times. She was Washington bureau chief for Sun Media, international writer for Peter Jennings at ABC News, and an editor at AP in New York and UPI in Washington.