Friday, April 27, 2012

Late Nights with the Hipster in Chief

President Obama's duet with Jimmy Fallon drew praise
and blame from entirely predictable circles.
The brouhaha over President Obama’s appearance this week on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon followed predictable lines. Fox News commentators claimed Obama has cheapened the office. Their opposite numbers at MSNBC rallied to the President’s defense, to nobody’s surprise. Lawrence O’Donnell coupled the Obama/Fallon footage with the first President to appear on a scripted entertainment show, Richard Nixon on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.

Unaddressed amid this artificial controversy lingers the real question: what is the role of the American President in today’s world? Should the person elected to that office hold himself (or herself) aloof from the glitz of entertainment? Or is the President a celebrity on a par with rock stars and actors? The answer, if we look at who voters have favored all the way back to the Founders’ time, seems plain: the President, for good or ill, is very much a pop culture figure.

When Nixon appeared on Laugh-In, he was considered an accidental candidate, likely to win only because his opponent, Hubert Humphrey, couldn’t wash off the stink of Lyndon Johnson. Voters in that newly technicolor world remembered Nixon’s televised 1960 debate with John Kennedy, when Nixon’s disdain for stage makeup made him resemble a pile of old socks. Appearing on Laugh-In let America see he was in on the joke—that he was their President.

Nixon had the aid, that year, of former Mike Douglas producer Roger Ailes. Later, Ailes would produce Rush Limbaugh’s ill-considered TV program, before shepherding Fox News into existence. Ailes brought his TV experience to bear on his political goals, and helped bring politics into the television age. If one man holds the bag for weird on-camera behavior by candidates and office-holders, that man is Roger Ailes.

Candidate Nixon made his age, unhipness,
and confusion the very heart of the joke.
But Ailes didn’t have a patch on Ronald Reagan. Though many commentators note Reagan’s background in Hollywood, his wartime contribution to America’s PR machine is much more interesting for his political career. Though he never faced a live bullet during World War II, Reagan had the benefit of a high-pressure education in how to tweak an audience’s feelings. He knew how to make us laugh, cheer, cry, cuss, and fall in love—on command, like a puppy.

Admirers called Reagan the Great Communicator, but reread his most celebrated speeches. He produced stirring quotes in abundance (“Well, there you go again;” “Tear down this wall!”), yet few policy statements. And Americans rewarded him for that. Compared to the notoriously inarticulate Jimmy Carter, or the stultifying Walter Mondale, Reagan won votes by giving tired, overloaded voters something exciting and unambiguous to hang onto.

The techniques Reagan pioneered found their ne plus ultra in George W. Bush. Twice Bush ran against knowledgeable but dull opponents, and won, as much as anything, on the fact that he looked like a real human beside starched shirts like Gore and Kerry. Even his supporters admitted Bush ran vague campaigns (though he seemed a model of specificity compared to Barack Obama), but he played the right emotional keys to keep voters’ eyes and ears on him.

Few Presidents have courted the media so blatantly as to appear on a midnight comedy talk show (though John Kerry, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bill and Hillary Clinton [separately] talked politics with Jay Leno). But over a dozen Presidents from both parties have attended the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Many have tried stand-up comedy. And why shouldn’t they? Candidates and office-holders perform for journalists regularly.

Comedy has always weighed in on politics;
turnabout is fair play.
My examples to now have focused on Presidents in living memory, though that’s been more expedient than deliberate. Because Presidents have copious camera time, we simply have more to observe today than prior generations. Yet Presidents have always made pop culture statements. Abraham Lincoln did not make classic speeches for posterity; transcripts of slick language in newspapers made him worth remembering centuries later.

Even Thomas Jefferson, often painted as stiff and doctrinaire, could work a crowd. His decision to ride his own horse in his inaugural parade, with neither a hat nor a powdered wig, made a deliberate statement as to who he believed he had been elected to serve. This marked a turning point in American history, when pretense became a political liability. But it was also a high-water mark in deliberate messaging.

President Obama simply continued the tradition of using the tools of his time to carry the message where it needs to go. How many people who would tune out another Presidential speech paid attention because of the format and venue? Sure, slow jamming the news lacks the faux gravitas of Disney’s Hall of Presidents. But it carries the mark of communications genius, and refined cultural savvy.

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