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Editor's Note: A version of this article was first published in January, 2011 and is a particular favorite of Robb's. Here's his updated re-write, a look at a side of politics, and life, not often discussed.


Citizen Kane and the Pretty Girl in a White Dress

June 25, 2012

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 different factors, and one certainly is how they view the issues. But more important are life experiences, and the images that voters take inside the voting booth. More than compatibility, people want public officials to understand how, why, and what they think about in everyday life.

We live in a 24-hour news cycle, and voters make up their minds 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.

This is illustrated in 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) whispered this word at the end of his life.

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

One 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 remains loyal to Kane to the very end. The reporter tracks him down; he's retired and living in an old-age home. He asks Bernstein what he knows about the meaning of “Rosebud.”

His answer surprises the young reporter, but it says a lot about the thinking process of people, generally. Berstein's answer goes to what strikes us in life, and what stays in our mind, and that often impacts how we run our life, and of course, why we vote the way we do.

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 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.”

Stunned, 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's what impacted decisions he made throughout life.

Same with voters but few politicians understand its significance. They insist on putting everyone into categories, and define us as “right” or “left”, and make their pitch based on this superifical information. Instead, voters are motivated on a much higher emotional level, and successful candidates understand that this higher plane trumps idealogy.

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 entire concept of life on this one unforgettable moment.

Voters often do, too.