Perhaps it started when then-President Richard Nixon invited Elvis Presley to the White House to discuss the possibility of the drug addict taking on a role as “federal-agent-at-large” with the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.
It definitely gained momentum when Chevy Chase began regularly spoofing Gerald Ford’s clutziness on Saturday Night Live.
It felt like glamour in the Reagan era when an ex-actor stood up and delivered his lines with George H.W. Bush as his sidekick monkey.
It became a natural part of the national psyche when “usually-briefs”-wearing Bill Clinton blasted his saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show.
Often to the detriment of policy and platform, modern presidents and pop culture have become irrevocably intertwined. While Nixon issued his invitation to Elvis out of a sort of bewilderment about how to rein in the counterculture, today’s presidential candidates act not out of bewilderment but savvy.
They know that getting elected these days rests on their ability to tolerate Joy Behar’s fidgeting, to act as though Jay Leno is the nice guy he pretends to be, to tweet anniversary wishes to their wives, to eat dinner at Sarah Jessica Parker’s house, to “slow jam” the news with Jimmy Fallon, to throw a few special-filter photos up on Instagram.
The plural pronoun in that previous paragraph should be changed to singular, truth be told. The guy who does all that is Obama.
Romney, who suffers from the combination of Brobdingnagian personal finances (which release him from the impulse to pander to the plebes) and Mormonism (which assures his wife wears Temple garments beneath her dresses and that he sidesteps the caffeinated dangers of Mountain Dew), has struggled to harness the power of pop culture. Yes, he’s doing the circuit of talk shows; yes, he’s got a reliable staffer sending out tweets. But mostly, he’s still the guy who wonders why airplane windows don’t open.
I can’t get too indignant about the mixing of nominees with Ellen and Oprah. Candidates have always relied on media outlets to package their messages. The difference is that “media” has morphed into something beyond straightforward journalistic reporting, and today’s audiences have been trained to expect dancing along with their policy messages. It may be dumb as dogs jumping through hula hoops that a politician has to list his favorite television shows before he can talk taxes, but that’s the new reality (incidentally, Romney enjoys Friday Night Lights while Obama favors Homeland). The game has changed, and those who want to win the game have to play along.
Whether unfortunately or simple fact, pop culture can swing an election.
Because something in me (perhaps the fourteen-year-old who still just wants to wear really high heels) savors nearly every aspect of pop culture, I actually see value come out of the seemingly-irrelevant moments when politics intersect with celebrity. For example, it does say something to me that Romney likes a tv show about Texas football and Obama looks forward to a CIA thriller that focuses on Al Qaeda-influenced mind games.
Even more, I actually had to stop the elliptical trainer at the YMCA the other day when I encountered a slick “Overheard on the Campaign Trail” blurb in the light-as-air magazine US Weekly. The piece was meant to be innocuous enough, but the quotes contained within in hit on fundamental values differences that explain why I’ll vote the way I do next month.
In the piece, both long-suffering candidates were caught attempting to connect with celebrity culture–and, as a by product, with voters.
President Obama spoke at Jay-Z’s 40/40 Club in New York City, joking, “Jay-Z now knows what my life is like. We both have daughters. And our wives are more popular than we are. …We’ve got a little bond.”
On September 14th, Mitt Romney got gossipy on Live! With Kelly & Michael, when he admitted, “I’m kind of a Snooki fan. Look how tiny she’s gotten. She’s lost weight. She’s energetic. Just her spark-plug personality is kind of fun.”
The fact that Snooki gave birth on August 26th makes me laugh about Romney’s comment, as I know he wasn’t referring to post-partum weight loss. I doubt he even knew she’d had a baby a few weeks before. Rather, he was referring to last year, when Snooki cut her weight to 98 pounds through the use of a diet pill program (something else I’ll wager he’s unaware of).
His comments make me screamy.
SCREEEEEEEEEEAMY. And SHOUTY.
First, we’ve got Obama who, with his usual facility, gives rapper Jay-Z an all-in-fun poke about how wonderful it is to play second microphone to one’s hugely charismatic wife. Obama is down with Jay-Z.
But Romney? Seriously, I had to stop my non-diet-pill approach to genuine and lasting health for a minute there and pause the elliptical. That his first thought about a female pertained to her weight and size was seriously dismaying to me. That his subsequent thoughts about her were patronizing, even condescending, infuriated me further.
Obama focused on a message of “Hey, friend: you and I are damn lucky to have powerful women in our lives.”
Romney sent a message of “Dither dither, blither blather, women should be thin but move around with enough vigor that their boobies bounce while they stir the spaghetti sauce for my dinner.”
Sure, they have differing agendas about The Real Issues, too, about the state of the middle class and the economy and education and health care,
but it turns out I’m a values voter.
And it’s pop culture that’s doing the best job of highlighting those differences and giving the populace the best sense of the place from which each candidate will work on any issue.
Because I’m in possession of a pair of bouncing boobies,
and because I want my boobies to be my business,
and because I want my boobies, which might get lumps in them, to be covered by health insurance,
and because my boobies delight that it’s my husband who makes the spaghetti sauce,
I respect the man who respects women.