A few days ago, Barack Obama suffered a bout of presidential claustrophobia, and decided to take a short and more-or-less unscheduled walk. He stepped out of the White House to walk down to the Department of the Interior — unfortunately named, almost robbing the president of the point of his walk. The ordinary folk he met on his way were duly surprised and took pictures of themselves with the president. “The bear is loose,” the president was heard to declare casually as he walked. Nobody is quite sure from where he drew the metaphor — perhaps the circus, or bear-baiting. One woman wondered aloud whether the president might be mistaken for a piece of moving waxwork. Remarkably, the president did not take a selfie at any point (or choke with tears at the joy of being free) — perhaps the First Lady’s chagrin at the Danish prime minister’s selfie with him at Nelson Mandela’s funeral has put him off such frivolities for a while. But in-house videographers followed him throughout (and the footage published the next day on the White House website), while an outer ring of security people hovered at a distance with discreet wariness. Even impulsiveness, the dropping of defences, becomes part of a plan, an image-forging exercise in Being Normal.
In less anxious times, some American presidents used to indulge in spontaneous skinny-dipping, and Gore Vidal used to tell stories of how the Kennedys went out to eat incognito in downmarket diners, when Jacqueline Kennedy delighted in wearing outrageous wigs. The tables were occasionally turned when outsiders lost their way in the White House. Marlene Dietrich — who knew, allegedly biblically too, John’s father — was also sought by his son, the president, presumably in a spirit of filial rivalry. She liked to tell her friends how she had to wake him, the son, afterwards, for she did not know her way out of the White House.