WHEN then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton made his storied appearance with saxophone in hand on “The Arsenio Hall Show” 16 years ago, he changed presidential politics -- turning pop culture’s hippest TV shows into the contemporary equivalent of campaign whistle-stops.
Plenty of politicians from both parties have followed Clinton’s lead, seeking new and even more daring ways of connecting with mass audiences via entertainment.
Some might argue that it’s been downhill ever since.
Witness the ongoing ad fight between John McCain and Barack Obama, each accusing the other of being . . . well, celebrities. These days, every campaign manufactures its own vocabulary. Turning “celebrity” into an epithet may seem like a long shot, but four years ago “swift boat” described a Vietnam War relic.
To members of the entertainment industry, the charge is ridiculous: Of course both Obama and McCain are celebrities, as every ambitious politician on the scene these days hopes to be. Modern day politics in America requires it of them.
“There’s a reason pop culture attracts viewers: It’s entertaining,” said political consultant and former Clinton White House staffer Chad Griffin, who has a large Hollywood clientele. “Politics, on the other hand, is not something people usually enjoy. So what do you do? You make yourself more visible to the public in a more entertaining way.”
McCain and Obama have been enthusiastic participants in this system, working talk-show hosts as they would a crowd in Ohio.
As a result, the path Clinton blazed is indeed well traveled:
You go on with Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert so that people can see you’re able to take a joke, even at your own expense. You go on with Jay Leno to show you’re a regular guy and can carry on a conversation like one. Oprah Winfrey shows you’ve got soul and David Letterman demonstrates you’re hip and smart but unpretentious.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, who understands celebrity from every angle, took things a step further and actually announced his candidacy for governor of California on Leno. Actor Fred Thompson followed suit, announcing that he was running for president on the show’s Burbank soundstage last year.
Politicians before Clinton occasionally appeared on TV programs. (Richard Nixon played the piano on Jack Paar in 1960). But it was always clear they stood apart from entertainment.
Clinton seemed like a natural part of the cast. He instinctively understood pop culture and was at ease with the connections it made with ordinary people. (He also had friends in Hollywood and routinely turned to them for advice.)
After Clinton played his sax version of “Heartbreak Hotel” during his June 1992 appearance on Hall’s show, the host quipped: “It’s nice to see a Democrat blow something besides the election.”
The audience was smitten. Political strategists took notice.
Obama has played pop culture with the same polished aplomb as Clinton. McCain looks a bit goofy on the TV shows, but in an affable and charming sort of way.
If their ads attacking the other’s celebrity continue to get much traction, it will be because they connect with another, darker pop cultural current -- America’s love/hate relationship with its celebrities amid an endless cycle of alternately building stars up and tearing them down.
“We feel that these people in Hollywood have made a fortune having a good time,” said presidential historian and author Douglas Brinkley. “People like to see them take a fall and get their comeuppance.”
The same holds true, it seems, for this new hybrid of celebrity politicians.
“ ‘Celebrity’ has become a dirty word in 2008,” said Darrell M. West, an academic with the Brookings Institute and co-author of the book “Celebrity Politics.” “Neither McCain nor Obama want to be seen as celebrities. Yet both of them are. So what we have here is both hypocrisy and absurdity.”
Even so, McCain’s celebrity attack ads on Obama are having an effect.
According to the Pew Foundation’s Project for Excellence in Journalism study of campaign coverage, McCain last week virtually tied Barack Obama in the battle for press attention for the first time since the kickoff of the general election.
McCain -- who started his ads hammering Obama on his celebrity status in mid-July -- appeared as a significant or dominant factor in 78% of election stories the week of July 28-Aug. 3, compared with 81% for Obama. It marked McCain’s highest amount of coverage since the general election season began in early June.
The study noted that one major catalyst for coverage of McCain was his ad that described Obama as “the biggest celebrity in the world” and included images of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. At 10% of the available news space, the subject of campaign advertising was the second-biggest campaign story line of the week.
The ad also generated other media narratives, including whether McCain’s campaign has gone too negative (6% of the news space).
Brinkley believes that Obama should avoid being spotted with any stars, at least for now.
“McCain needs to paint Obama as a Harvard elite egghead celebrity,” Brinkley said. “Now he feels like he’s ringing the pinball machine. The last thing Obama needs is to be seen in a photograph with a celebrity.”
That should make Denver interesting. You won’t be able to throw a stone without hitting a star or two at the Democratic National Convention. It would be easier to avoid them on the Oscar red carpet.
But here’s the ultimate test: Come late October, when the campaign is neck-and-neck, will either McCain or Obama turn down an invitation to be on Leno?