Jewish World Review Oct. 10, 2003 / 14 Tishrei, 5764
Trivial Pursuit: Politics as entertainment
http://www.jewishworldreview.com | "The thing you gotta know is, everything is show biz!" Plucky little Adolf Hitler sings his hate-filled Nazi heart out in the hilariously tasteless big dance number of "The Producers." It recounts his rise to power as sort of the Broadway melodrama of 1932.
Mel Brooks, the genius behind the comedy, probably didn't intend those lines as a comment on today's political scene, but he wasn't far off.
Politics as entertainment is nothing new. It just appears to be more visible in this campaign.
The "Larry King Live" show might have seemed like an unusual venue for Bob Graham to announce the end his presidential campaign - until you consider that the CNN call-in show is where Ross Perot started his White House bid in 1992. If the insurgent governor of California, himself a show-biz figure of the first magnitude, can confide his candidacy to Jay Leno and several million viewers of "The Tonight Show," why shouldn't presidential candidates seek out Oprah or Larry or Geraldo to make news?
Politics as entertainment is nothing new. Graham's affinity for show business extends back to his time as governor, when he would bring celebrity "mystery guests" - ranging from Jimmy Buffett to the Florida A&M University Marching 100 - to perform with him in the annual Capitol Press Corps Skits. He appeared in a Palm Beach County production of "The Fantasticks" and, to this day, Graham will serenade audiences with songs from that show.
People were surprised when Richard Nixon posed for an Esquire cover in 1968 and then did a cameo appearance on the "Rowan and Martin Laugh-In." But it was understood that "the new Nixon" was just trying to unbend a little, to shed a stiff image that hurt him in 1960. It wasn't like he was talking about foreign policy or economic plans in those appearances.
But Jimmy Carter talked issues in his 1976 Playboy interview. Without addressing the substance of what Carter said, President Ford's campaign rushed out advertisements showing Ford on the cover of Forbes and Time - the implication being, our guy talks to important journals of world events; their guy is just another celeb.
Of course, Carter knew what he was doing by talking to Playboy - alloying a dour Southern Baptist image that worried some moderate-to-liberal young voters. Carter courted Rolling Stone for the same reason, but it raised far fewer eyebrows.
With the growth of cable and satellite TV, the number of semi-news shows and shout fests rose rapidly in the 1980s. Reagan was "the great communicator" in large measure because White House message mavens like Michael Deaver and Lyn Nofziger knew how to deploy Republican agency heads and members of Congress to programs that reached whatever demographic bloc they were targeting from time to time.
Maybe the seriousness of the times is reflected by the venues that candidates choose to reach us with their messages. By the end of the 1980s it was the "MTV generation," and the music video network (remember when they used to actually play music?) set out to "rock the vote." Rocking the vote entailed Bill Clinton going on MTV to answer the question, "boxers or briefs." Meanwhile, Perot was over at CNN, telling Larry that if the volunteers would get him on the ballot in 50 states he would put the deficit front-and-center. Bruce Babbitt and Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., did bits on "Saturday Night Live." Clinton took his saxophone on "The Arsenio Hall Show." But, still, they were going on those shows for polish, not policy. This year, we seem to have candidates talking serious business on programs that aren't serious business.
They'll still go to "Meet the Press" or "Face the Nation" for some attention on a slow Sunday. But it seems we want our candidates to entertain us, too.
The blend of celebrity and politics came full circle at NBC when the network said it is not sure what to do with Maria Shriver. Can she return to Dateline when her husband is governor? NBC never worried about ethical conflicts posed by her kinship to the Kennedys - presumably she was hired strictly for her journalism credentials, not her looks and fame - but being married to a somewhat Republican is a problem.
Political consultants will tell you a Lincoln couldn't make it today - too ugly and melancholy - but that assumes he'd be the same Honest Abe now. More likely, he'd Botox the wrinkles, go into rehab for depression and tell us about it on "Dr. Phil." And no more dolorous speeches at graveyards - today, Lincoln would be on "Late Show With David Letterman," reading Dave's list of "Top 10 Wacky Things My Wife Has Done." For newspapers to complain about TV fluffing up the serious news is like complaining about gravity - you don't like it, but nothing is going to change it. But maybe, when our leaders bemoan low voter turnout and fret that young people don't know anything about government, it might occur to them that they've helped trivialize it themselves.