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'
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.
"Buffalo Bill was the biggest celebrity in America at the time, and Roosevelt did all he could to become Bill" to get votes, Brinkley says. "Those presidents who continue to have luster, like JFK and Reagan, all have lingering appeal because they recognized how important celebrity is. "
But politics-merged-with-celebrity is no big deal, says presidential historian Stephen Hess, also of Brookings. It's insulting to suggest that voters don't know the difference between, say, voting for president and voting on American Idol, Hess scoffs.
"You'd have to show me actual evidence that people are voting for unqualified candidates just because they are 'celebrities,' " he says. "The American people can sort this out pretty well."
Indeed, an argument can be made that using the mechanics of celebrityhood to attract voters' attention is a good thing; democracy is about all the demos — the people — and not just political junkies.
"It's easy to distract people with entertainment because people are more interested in entertainment than politics," West says. "But it's not good if it drains substance out of the process. When you get Paris Hilton in campaign ads, you know you're in" silly territory.
Celebrity can be a mixed blessing for the candidates, as well, summed up by the aphorism: Live by tabloid, die by tabloid.
The good thing about your face plastered on scores of magazine and tabloid covers is that you reach more voters than you might otherwise. The bad thing is that some tabloids also want to take you down — dissecting your marriage, your parenting, your pastor, your love life and all those pesky details about cut-rate land deals and bridges to nowhere that you think are out of bounds.
Politicians "want the upside of celebrityhood without any of the intrusiveness, and that's impossible," West says.
Lindsay Lohan could attest to that. She felt it necessary to advise Palin about how to behave (yes, the irony is head-snapping) via her MySpace blog: "Hint Hint, Pali Pal — Don't pose for anymore tabloid covers, you're not a celebrity, you're running for office to represent our, your, my COUNTRY!"
Courtney E. Martin, 28, author and columnist for The American Prospect magazine, says many young people tend to see politicians as just another kind of celebrity, albeit in bad clothes. She blames the decline in civic education, which leaves them ill-equipped to understand issues or identify falsehoods. "But the media are feeding us what we ask for — I don't see a lot of letters to the editor demanding more policy coverage" instead of celebrity coverage, she says.
Peter Levine, a scholar of civic learning at Tufts University in Boston who blogs about politics and celebrity, says that when candidates do something policy-related, it doesn't get as much attention as, say, an argument over lipstick on a pig. "One interpretation is that this is not the candidates' fault because substantive stuff does not pay," Levine says. "Lipstick got more attention than McCain's education plan. There are big incentives for politicians to act like celebrities, but it's bad for our politics."
Nevertheless, it is likely to continue, even intensify. Gary Indiana, novelist, essayist and author of Schwarzenegger Syndrome: Politics and Celebrity in the Age of Contempt, says the importance of celebrity in politics has become even more extreme since the celebrity governor of California was elected in 2003. Some people deserve to be celebrated, he says, and Schwarzenegger has turned out to be not the worst governor California ever had.
"The celebrity factor is in direct proportion to the unhappiness of most people — the greater the misery, the more powerful celebrity becomes, because people want to escape reality," Indiana says. "But in this culture, anyone can be a celebrity.
"All you have to do is put a new face out there, take a catchphrase that means nothing and repeat it endlessly, and people will be distracted the same way a bull is distracted by a matador's cape."