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Citizen Kane and the Pretty Girl in the White Dress

January 24, 2011

Pundits spend a lot of time trying to understand politics, voting patterns, and what moves people to vote the way they do.

Voters make decisions based on many different factors, including how they view the issues. Often overlooked however are life experiences, and the images voters bring with them into the voting booth. More than compatibility on issues, people want their public officials to understand how and what they think in everyday life.

We live in a 24-hour news cycle, and voters are making up their minds about candidates very late in the process, often on Election Day itself.  This means voters are following their instincts, and not necessarily casting ballots on the basis of ideology, after all, where a candidate stands on the issues is known early on.

So there’s something else going on in the minds of voters, and it has more to do with personal experiences and imagery than a rigid set of principles.

I learned this many years ago from the 1941 movie classic Citizen Kane, arguably the greatest movie ever made.

The movie tells the story of millionaire newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane (played by Director/Producer/Creator & Writer Orson Welles).  The movie is centered on politics and journalism, but it’s the subtle interactions in the film that provide many special concepts that can be applied to politics today.

The premise involves a reporter assigned to decipher the last word of Kane before he died, which was “Rosebud”. He is trying to find out why this powerful and extraordinary man (Kane) chooses to whisper this word at his life’s end.

The reporter is looking for a large and significant meaning to “Rosebud, and his assignment take us through the biography of Kane’s life to find out the answer.

A poignant scene is a conversation between the reporter and Kane’s longtime friend and employee known throughout the movie as “Mr. Bernstein.”

Mr. Bernstein is played by Everett Sloane, and in the movie, he remained loyal to Kane to the end. The reporter tracks him down, retired and living in an old-age home, to find out what he knows about “Rosebud”.

His answer surprises the young reporter, but it says a lot about the thinking process of people generally. What strikes us, and what stays with us, and that can impact how we vote.

Mr. Bernstein said, “A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn’t think he’d remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off.  A white dress she had on.  She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn’t see me at all, but I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.”

The reporter closed his notebook and left somewhat disappointed. Still, Bernstein was right. There was something tucked away in the recesses of Kane’s mind, something called “Rosebud”, and that impacted every decision he made throughout his life.

Same with voters but few politicians understand its significance. They insist on putting everyone into categories, and define every voter as either “right” or “left”.  Voter appeals are usually made on this basis instead of trying to tap in at a higher - emotional level.

Voters seek out candidates who understand all of this and want them to make an emotional appeal for their vote, an appeal on a higher plane than ideology. People are constantly processing their own life, the experiences of what they’ve seen and what they’ve done.

This impacts people's decisions on friendships, but also for whom they will vote.

Mr. Bernstein laid it out succinctly in Citizen Kane as he told the story of a pretty girl in a white dress; carrying a white parasol.

He based his concept of life on this one moment.

Voters often do too.