Boris Johnson and the Theater of London Politics

London's mayoral race is the perfect postmodern "brand" election, where persona trumps party.

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Only in England might you find such a set piece. Correction! Only in London. The best theater in the world is to be found there—some charge admission, but much of it is free.

The race for mayor is on, of paramount importance because the winner is the face London shows the world with the Summer Olympics coming to call.

As Sarah Lyall reported in an amusing story in Monday's edition of The New York Times, the current mayor, Boris Johnson, makes a charming party host and has cast a spell of sorts over the city. The 47-year-old eccentric old boy Etonian has "a quip for every occasion," she noted. Sometimes in the original Latin.

Meanwhile, a former mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, is tearing his hair out and can't hide the bad blood between them. "He gets away with murder," he told the press, according to The Times. Livingstone, a serious Labour Party politician, seeks to reclaim the office he lost to Johnson in 2008.

[See pictures of London preparing for the Olympics.]

Oh, did I mention Boris—if you don't mind me taking the first-name liberty—is a member of the Conservative Party? It hardly seems to matter, because this is the perfect postmodern "brand" election, where persona trumps party. Everyone knows Boris, beyond the borders of London.

Livingstone and others running can't steer the debate toward substance. "Try as they might to focus on issues like housing, policing and the economy, the mayor's opponents have been unable to get past the cult of Boris," Lyall wrote.

What fun. Boris has a habit of shaking his golden mane of hair to say hello and making people laugh in a light-hearted way, no small feat in a nation under the shadow of Prime Minister David Cameron's austerity policies.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the European debt crisis.]

I know whereof I write, as an American in London once, learning my English lessons anew every day. I worked at the CBS News bureau and was then married to a beguiling yet mercurial Brit—like the weather over there. Classics at Cambridge: Yes, I was too easily impressed by that as a champion Anglophile. And this is what I learned about English life, what I took back home with me.

Form. It's all about being on a good form. One's demeanor at dinner, one's skill at storytelling, one's rapport and repartee—they like that sort of thing. In point of fact, they love that sort of thing. The way things seem is as important as the way things actually are. This is hard for an American to get through her pretty head, especially if she comes from California, where self expression is encouraged.

Just the opposite was true in London—the more clever, subtle, and ironic you could be, the better. Feelings were there to be suppressed. Insults only counted if you could say it so well that the person being insulted didn't realize it. A code I found a tad confusing, as I hadn't acquired the art of social subtext.

[Rick Newman: How the Olympics Will Cost London]

Then Doug Sefton, a CBS News producer and an American in London for years, told me, "They're all actors." All the world's indeed a stage in London—and each stage a world—and all the men and women merely players. Shakespeare's Globe, just a gleam in actor Sam Wanamaker's eye, was not yet built, but there are so many other stages and shows in London. The House of Commons prime minister question time is marvelous theater.

I interviewed Wanamaker, a charismatic American, and figured his remarkable success in London must be due partly to his profession, knowing how to act his part. I, on the other hand, was still learning my lines.

Don't get me wrong. I love London, all the more for deciphering the way things are done. It's the world's capital in my book.

Getting back to Boris, I like the sound of a mayor who bicycles to City Hall. Londoners like having a mayor who is a character that captures their fancy, and who can blame them? They have a huge show to put on this summer. Pretty soon, the whole world will know Boris as London's leading man.

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