Politicians, campaigns and popular culture

The mass media journey from wax recordings to
The Colbert Report leads directly to our internal
conflict over governance.


On some level, every politician is a risk-taker, at least during that first run for office. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that presidential candidates — and presidents — have adroitly assimilated modern communications technologies into their campaigns and communications toolkits.

1908 Presidential Campaign; cartoon, HarpWeek.

More than 100 years ago, Thomas Edison pitched his recording technology to Democrat William Jennings Bryan and Republican William Howard Taft (the winner).

So in 1908, both presidential candidates recorded “two-minute mini-speeches on wax cylinders” for the presidential campaign. Edison then sold them for 35-cents each ($8–$9, inflation adjusted). Both would eventually record for Victor and Columbia as well.

Thus the sound-bite was born.

As well as a direct route to the voter, a route which network television would deflect and the Internet would resurrect.

President Warren Harding broadcast the first presidential speech on the radio in 1922. The occasion: dedication services for the Lincoln Memorial.

“His enunciation was excellent. His voice seemed well adapted for broadcasting. Those who had never heard him speak were charmed by his oratorical voice, his fluency of speech and by his rhythmic expression.” — Frederick (Maryland) Daily News, 1922
President Calvin Coolidge, 1923, addresses a joint session of Congress, the first presidential address broadcast on radio. Photo, Library of Congress.

Then in December 1923, President Calvin Coolidge delivered the first presidential address broadcast on radio. This speech to a joint session of Congress would become known as the State of the Union Address.

For context: in 1920 only 20% of American households had telephones.

It would be 1927 before 20% of American households had a radio. The phonograph, on the other hand, was 30 years old in 1908.

The age of TV is born

Flash forward to President Harry Truman.

Although we may know Truman best because of the whistle-stop tour that marked his second campaign for President, the prior year he gave the first televised presidential address from the White House and was the first sitting president to appear on television, October 5, 1947.

Twenty years earlier, Philo Taylor Farnsworth had demonstrated the first electronic television. And television had been available in Britain since 1929. RCA, the king of radio, brought television to America with the opening of the New York World’s Fair in 1939. Former president Franklin D. Roosevelt appeared on that broadcast.

In 1951, Truman would make the first coast-to-coast television broadcast from San Francisco.

Television was in its infancy during Truman’s administration. In 1947, the industry produced fewer than 200,000 televisions. But by the 1952 presidential campaign (Republican Dwight Eisenhower versus Democrat Adlai Stevenson) the industry was producing 6 million units annually. In 1959, then Senator John F. Kennedy would appear on Jack Paar’s Tonight Show.

By 1960, 88% of American households had a television. (Only 79% had a telephone.) And television brought the national political campaign into our living rooms with the Kennedy-Nixon debates:

“[T]he 60-minute duel between the handsome Irish-American senator and Vice President Richard Nixon fundamentally altered political campaigns, television media and America’s political history.” — Kayla Webley
The first debate between Sen. John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon took place on September 26, 1960. It was watched by 65–70 million viewers; 9-in-10 American homes had a television set.

In the popular vote that November, the Democratic, Catholic challenger squeaked by the sitting Vice President: 49.7% to 49.5%. However, the electoral college vote was not close: 303–219.

Embracing the power of this emerging medium, President John F. Kennedy would give the first live, televised press conference in 1961.

Television would bring us Kennedy’s assassination, the Apollo mission and, eventually, Vietnam. In 1963, Americans said that they got most of their news from television, not newspapers. Three networks, time-constrained newscasts: television was becoming a powerful gatekeeper.

In 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson produced one of the most powerful negative campaign ads in political history: Daisy.

Yet the medium was still a teenager. Presidents were serious; they appeared on news shows, not comedy.

That is, until the 1968 presidential campaign. And the unlikely champion for the lighter, more human politico was none other than former Vice President Richard M. Nixon, he who flopped in 1960.

Nixon: the politician as “every man”

In 1963, Nixon appeared on Jack Parr’s Tonight Show, where he played the piano. But not just any musical piece. He played a concerto that he had written. Accompanied by a full orchestra.

Former Vice President Richard Nixon on Jack Paar’s Tonight Show, playing his own composition with a full orchestra; March 8, 1963.

Paul Keyes, a Republican writer for the Tonight Show, had urged Nixon to be a guest. Nixon had just lost (November 1962) the California gubernatorial race to sitting governor Pat Brown. This 1963 appearance was supposed to be his swan song.

But in 1968, Nixon again ran for president, this time against sitting Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Independent (Dixiecrat) Alabama Governor George Wallace. In a year marked by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, Nixon became the first presidential candidate to appear on a comedy show.

Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, with a name inspired by a decade of sit-ins, premiered on NBC in January 1968. It would become the number-one ranked show for the year, trumping CBS stalwarts Gomer Pyle, Mayberry R.F.D. and Gunsmoke as well as NBC’s Bonanza.

On the September 16 show, 55-year old candidate for president Nixon would deliver one of the show’s signature lines. But instead of delivering it as a statement or command, he turned it into a question: “Sock it to me?”

Presidential candidate Nixon’s six seconds on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-in; September 16, 1968.

And who orchestrated his appearance? None other than Keyes, who was a writer for the show. Humphrey and Wallace would both decline.

The popular vote between the two veeps was close (31,710,470 to 30,898,055) but the electoral result was a landslide (301 to 191).

“Nixon said … that appearing on Laugh-In is what got him elected — and I believe that. And I’ve had to live with that.” — George Schlatter, Creator of Laugh-In

Then on August 8, 1974, Nixon marked another milestone. He would resign the presidency. On television. His Vice President-turned-President, Gerald Ford, would make a campaign appearance on Saturday Night Live in 1976. That moment of levity would not prevent his defeat at the hands of Democrat Jimmy Carter, however.

The 1980s marked the tenure of President Ronald Reagan, actor-turned-politician. Television was his milleau. Reagan was skilled at “talking evocatively and using folksy anecdotes that ordinary people could understand.”

The first boomer becomes president

In 1992, sitting Republican President George H.W. Bush was challenged by Democrat Bill Clinton and Independent Ross Perot. In 1968, the third party candidate had ensured that the incumbent party would lose. In 1992, history repeated itself.

But contributing to the defeat of the incumbent was a sour economy and a presidential candidate who reveled in his boomer roots (remember, he didn’t inhale).

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Clinton was the first presidential candidate to appear on a late night talk show. Clinton was a southern Democrat from a quasi-rural state who needed to appeal to young, urban voters if he was going to defeat Bush. Enter Arsenio Hall, a saxophone and Heartbreak Hotel.

Presidential candidate Bill Clinton plays the saxophone on Arsenio Hall’s late night show; June 1992.
“He seemed like a guy who’d be fun to drink a beer with.”—Scott Schwertly

The pundits and powers-that-be, however, thought Clinton’s performance wasn’t dignified. Nevertheless, he listened to his media adviser, Mandy Grunwald. In addition to Arsenio’s show, Clinton’s campaign linked him with pop culture by booking him on MTV and the Nashville Network.

Clinton was the first presidential candidate to appear on cable entertainment television.

Something worked.

Clinton started going up in the polls while Perot began to tumble. However Perot had also been non-conventional in his use of media. He announced his candidacy on The Larry King Show and used his millions to place 30-minute ads outlining his policy concerns.

In November 1992, younger voter turnout was 42.8%, up from 36.2% in 1988. And 50% of those aged 18–24 voted Democratic, more than the electorate at large. Clinton won the White House with a plurality of the popular vote: 43–38–19. As when Nixon defeated Humphrey, the electoral vote wasn’t close: 370–168.

“It wasn’t the first time that television was the place where America found the pictures that would shape its vision of the future. But 1992 was the first time those pictures were found on late-night, syndicated, entertainment programs and on cable channels dominated by U2 and Madonna.” — David Zurawick

The candidates are not the only beneficiaries: they have proven to be an audience draw. Clinton’s appearance on Arsenio pulled 5.4 million viewers.

The 21st century: the rise of politainment

In the 2000 campaign, both sitting Vice President Al Gore and Republican challenger George Bush appeared on Oprah, marking the entry of political campaigns into daytime talk shows geared towards women. They each also appeared on the Late Show With David Letterman.

Politainment, according to scholar Kathryn Collier House, is a “soft news or infotainment report featuring a political figure.”

In 2004, the presidential campaign moved to daytime “advice” television, with incumbent President Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry each appearing on Dr. Phil.

In 2004, Kerry also appeared on daytime’s Live With Regis and Kelly as well as the Late Show With David Letterman and Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. Vice Presidential candidate John Edwards also appeared on Live with Regis and Kelly as well as The View. In 2003, Kerry had appeared on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle “wearing blue jeans and a leather jacket,” an unsuccessful attempt to harness some of Clinton’s “cool.”

Bush also embraced cable television by filming an episode of Fishing With Roland Martin for the Outdoor Life Network during the 2004 campaign. He appeared on Fox News Channel host Bill O’Reilly’s show. In 2008, he made a non-campaign, cameo appearance on Deal or No Deal.

Democratic President Barack Obama, however, has adopted television’s connection with popular culture —via politainment— in an unprecedented manner.

As a candidate in 2008, Obama appeared on Late Night with David Letterman and Jay Leno’s Tonight Show. Twice. Of course, so did Republican candidate Sen. John McCain.

Tina Fey (l); Sarah Palin

Saturday Night Live’s Tina Fey uttered the line most associated, erroneously, with Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin: “I can see Russia from my house.” Palin appeared on Kate Plus Eight, a TLC production.

Also during the 2008 campaign, Cindy McCain, Michelle Obama and (in 2007) Hillary Clinton each appeared on The View. ABC’s daytime show for women, launched in 1997, was becoming the place to be seen during daytime, network TV.

In 2009, Obama became the first sitting president to appear on the Tonight Show and continued to grace Leno’s set until his retirement. In return, Leno cut Obama a lot of slack: only 1,011 jokes about Obama compared with 4,607 jokes about Clinton and 3,239 jabs at Bush. Obama taped a tribute that aired on Leno’s last performance in February 2014.

Screen capture of President Barack Obama on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show; October 25, 2011.

The list of niche television shows that have hosted Obama-the-candidate or Obama-the-president is long. A non-exhaustive list: Access Hollywood, The Colbert Report, The Daily Show, Ellen, Late Night With David Letterman, Mythbusters, and The View.

But here’s the big deal: Obama has continued these appearances outside of the presidential campaign cycle.

Obama’s use of niche television reflects the fragmentation of the medium — no longer just three network channels — as well as the power of Internet networks. We share interesting clips on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and other digital networks, including email, making it possible for candidates — or Presidents — to reach audiences who may not be regular TV viewers. It also puts the power to share in our hands, sometime guided by the hands of the politician.

Obama’s attention to niche media also reflects the changing nature of traditional television news reporting. In 1968, the average sound bite was 43 seconds. By 1988, it was only 9 seconds. When appearing as an entertainment show guest — night or day — politicians have minutes, not seconds, to communicate a message or invoke an attitude.

When Obama appeared on The View in 2010, he reached 6.6 million Americans, according to Nielsen. And The View almost doubled its normal audience.

President Barack Obama, live, on The Colbert Report; December 8, 2014.

On December 8, 2014, Obama sat in for Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report’s popular segment, “The Word.” It was his first live appearance (the show was shot in Washington, D.C.) and his second as president.

The Word-renamed-Decree excerpt on Comedy Central was the second-most popular late-night clip of the week, with 1.1 million views as of December 12, plus almost another half-million on YouTube. The episode had 1.7 million TV viewers compared with a normal viewership of about 1.1 million.

What next?

Some scholars believe that niche TV shows may provide “a new venue for political discourse.”

Given that only a third of adults in a recent survey could name all three branches of government (and a third couldn’t name even one), new venues that stimulate political discourse seem to be desperately needed.

One challenge to national unity, however, is that the fragmented media space also makes it easier for voters to select media outlets that reinforce their world views. In this fractured landscape, how do we make governing interesting and politics relevant?

There can be no clearer view of the challenge facing us than this chart from Gallup:

Gallup’s approval ratings for Congress; December 15, 2014.

Congressional approval rating peaked after 9–11, along with other measures of unity and patriotism. It has dropped steadily and precipitously since we launched the Iraq War.

“All those who seek to destroy the liberties of a democratic nation ought to know that war is the surest and shortest means to accomplish it.” — Alexis de Tocqueville

Confidence in Congress recovered briefly in the wake of the Wall Street implosion of 2008. And almost immediately collapsed again. Approval reached an all-time monthly low of 9% in November 2013 due to the partial government shutdown.

All wars are not fought against external enemies or with armaments.

It will take more than politicians appropriating niche communication platforms to mend this rift. And mend it, we must.

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