Sometimes you have to wonder if the presidential candidates are running to be First Celebrity — or maybe Entertainer of the Year. Watching the campaign, you can just about imagine that come Jan. 20, Ryan Seacrest will be on the steps of the Capitol swearing in either John McCain orBarack Obama as the next American Idol.
It's not that the candidates have entirely given up serious speeches, solemn debates and aggressive political attacks. It's that their dance cards also are thick with appearances and events designed to entertain us. Sometimes, the contrast is jarring.
Just this week, McCain and Obama and their running mates, Sarah Palin and Joe Biden, were on the stump battering the others' positions and bolstering their own. At the same time, they played up their celebrity status. McCain was trying to make up with David Letterman, telling Entertainment Tonight he hoped to be forgiven for ditching a Late Show appearance to be interviewed by CBS news anchor Katie Couric. Palin was telling reporters how much fun it would be to appear on Saturday Night Live with her doppeleganger, comedian Tina Fey. And Biden on NBC's Today joked about being spoofed on SNL.
And that's not all: We've watched Obama doing his Marlon Brando imitation, communing with Oprah and posing for Annie Leibovitz (for yet another cover of Men's Vogue). We've seen McCain grilling ribs with Rachael Ray, snarking with Jon Stewart and squirming on The View. Both have tried to amuse us as they goof off in skits on SNL.
What's next —Dancing With the Stars?
"The race for the White House is the best reality show on TV," writes blogger Max Robins, a vice president at the Paley Center for Media, a television think tank in New York. "Despite the flowering of a zillion voices — good, bad and ugly — we are getting informed and entertained this election season."
It's an unprecedented presidential campaign for a lot of reasons, and surely one of them is that our political culture is merging with our celebrity culture on the road to the White House. The old demarcations between politics and entertainment have blurred; what seems to matter more and more in this fame-obsessed zeitgeist is celebrity.
Take Palin, a once obscure politician who has become the celeb of this campaign. Before Palin, McCain was disparaging Obama in ads as — sniff — a "celebrity." Then when Palin suddenly became the most talked-about woman in America, he celebrated her celebrity.
Is she qualified to be president in an emergency? Not relevant to many voters, says Tucker Carlson, a campaign correspondent for MSNBC. "The American people aren't in the market for the most qualified person. They want to be inspired and entertained," Carlson said on the cable network's Hardball show last month.
"It's not like the experienced people have done such a great job — that's why voters are open to relative unknowns," points out Darrell West of the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington and co-author of Celebrity Politics, which examines the intertwined worlds of politics and entertainment.
'It's what the public craves'