He's more sensitive to criticism that his work as a documentarian on the White House staff was, by definition, manipulative. In a defense unlikely to convince many doubters, he insists, "West Wing Week isn't propaganda if for no other reason than because I made it, and I didn't intend it to be." But he's clearly wounded when his friends in the press corps ice him out of an elevator when covering an event at the United Nations. The best revenge, perhaps? When he left his self-created post as first-ever White House videographer last August, the White House decided to hire a successor to fill his job. Having someone with their videocamera constantly focused on the president is the new normal, the American presidency in the age of video abundance.
Maybe video doesn't lie, exactly. But it seems reasonable to wonder how often it leaves us believing the wrong things. Does he really think good on camera, I ask Chaudhary when we talk, means good in the White House? "I don't think authenticity on camera equals that you're going to be the best or most effective politician," he responds. "It's just another fact for the American people to know about you."
The record seems mixed. YouTube Obama was a conciliator of the first order, but that hasn't really panned out. And, sure, Sarah Palin was pretty much done for after her Katie Couric interviews aired. But what about John Edwards? If you never saw him obsess over his hair in that "I Feel Pretty" video, would it have been so difficult to believe that he was the earnest leader of his call-to-action videos from New Orleans? In old video footage, George H.W. Bush has all the charisma of a crash-test dummy, but he's generally considered to have been a fine executor of the responsibilities of the presidency; his son was masterful on top of that World Trade Center heap after 9/11, but things went downhill from there. John Kerry, it's hard to believe now, became famous because of how good he was on camera back in 1971. As a star of the Senate's Vietnam hearings, the man was compelling.
The answer, says Chaudhary, is that whoever you are, that's who you are. "It speaks to the hard truth that if the actor doesn't get the joke, it will never be funny," he says on our call. That's why it was painful to watch John McCain mutter out "complete the danged fence" in an 2010 video. His heart's not in it.
In the book, Chaudhary points to Newt Gingrich. Chaudhary writes that he can't help himself, there's something about Gingrich he likes. But his early 2012 campaign videos were terrible. People like Gingrich because he's a bit of a snide jerk, but in his announcement video he tried to come across as defanged and earnest, his head filling up the frame against "what looks like a Sears Portrait Studio backdrop." It's no surprise, according to Chaudhary, that Gingrich won South Carolina after ads ran that showed his meaner side.
All of which raises the possibility that what we're after isn't just stage presence. It's self-awareness. The takeaway from the "Great Debate" of 1960 wasn't just that Nixon looked pallid. It was that he was so insecure that he couldn't bear to accept the studio's makeup help after Kennedy turned it down. In that action we see a lot of what brought down the Nixon presidency. (Kennedy, the sneak, just had his own people do it.)
Chaudhary writes that he suspected that Kerry was doomed in 2004 when his balloons failed to fall at the Democratic convention, an excruciating moment for anyone whose appreciation for production values isn't completely swamped by partisanship. According to the book, while practicing for his big Jefferson Jackson Dinner speech in a Chicago conference room, Obama clapped and laughed where the audience would, so as to get the timing right. It's an easy moment to mock. But it suggests a man who knows what he's doing.
I ask Chaudhary for his take on another film star: Rep. Paul Ryan.