If politicians have become celebrity entertainers, then entertainers are becoming more intertwined in politics than ever before. Obama-supporting Oprah can move books and might be able to move votes. Fey's impersonation of Palin on SNL is not only entertaining but also might be a factor in Palin's downward slide in polls. When McCain dumped Letterman for Couric, Letterman reacted with repeated mocking that caused enough damage to persuade McCain to get back in Letterman's good graces. (The two are said to be negotiating a kiss-and-make-up appearance next week.)
"You have to become a celebrity because if you're not, no one will pay attention — it's what the public craves," says David Zinczenko, editor of Men's Health magazine, which has Obama on its November cover. Since people are too busy to spend much time with their families, "no wonder we look for candidates to sit down and have a beer with — because we don't have the time to sit down and have a beer with our friends."
The public, it's clear, is plugged into the drama. Viewership for the debates held so far, especially the vice presidential debate, have been among the highest since the record-setting Reagan-Carter debate in 1980, when nearly 80 million watched.
And SNL's ratings are up nearly 50% over last year, thanks to an unusually target-rich environment for political satire. The show expanded its political "Weekend Update" sketch to three prime-time specials on Thursday nights before the election.
The celebritization of presidential politics has come a long way since 1960, when candidates John Kennedy and Richard Nixon went on Jack Paar's The Tonight Show to chat separately with the genial host. That seems to have been the first time modern presidential candidates have appeared on a TV entertainment show to yuk it up for votes.
Eight years later, Nixon turned up on the silly comedy show Laugh-In, appearing on TV screens across America repeating the show's catchphrase, "Sock it to me." It helped soften Nixon's image, and eventually, it helped him sock it to his Democratic opponent, Hubert Humphrey, who declined to appear on the show and later lamented that it might have played a role in his defeat.
It would be another six elections before Bill Clinton fully traversed the politics/celebrity line in the 1992 campaign, when he played Heartbreak Hotel on his saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show and discussed his knickers on MTV.
Nowadays, Americans are accustomed to stars gabbing about the designers they wear, the jewelry they favor, the products they use. But presidential candidates? Just as it has become de rigueur for candidates to campaign from chat-show couches, it is now expected that voters and reporters will ask them such questions as: Boxers or briefs?
(They don't have to answer: When celebrity mag Us Weekly asked Obama about his underwear, he replied, "I don't answer those humiliating questions. But whichever one it is, I look good in 'em!")
Lure of the spotlight is nothing new
The siren call of celebrity is not just a modern phenomenon, says presidential historian Douglas Brinkley of Rice University in Houston. He's writing a book about Theodore Roosevelt, who borrowed his "Rough Riders" shtick from Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West shows featuring the "Congress of Rough Riders of the World," although TR never actually appeared in a Wild West show.