“I think you’re really going to like the Hillary Clinton my team and I have put together for this debate.” —Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton
A shunted politician returns to the national stage eight years after an embarrassing defeat leaving this former D.C. resident with languishing popularity but assured frontrunner status in their next election. A tale of two candidates who kept their profiles afloat through media appearances and attempted to rewrite their appeal in preparation for a resurgence. Beaten but not defeated, repackaged and relatable—through the manufactured lenses of late shows and talk shows—the political lives of Dick and Hillary.
Professor Daniel Boorstin, who taught within our history department for 25 years and later became the 12th Librarian of Congress, wrote in 1962, “Our national politics has become a competition for images or between images, rather than between ideals.” Although the statement might have seemed alarmist at the time, Mr. Boorstin had spotted the formation of an information revolution that has swept the nation without it noticing. In the 1960s, a presidential candidate’s image and media outreach began to matter, and the line between celebrity and politician faded. Political discourse had to be entertaining to be deemed newsworthy. And at the forefront of this movement was our 37th president, whose history of tightly controlled publicity wrote the playbook for office seekers, charismatically bankrupt or not. Every candidate plays by Mr. Nixon’s rules now, but the medium has quickly outgrown each user’s prominence and candidates, as well as presidents, find themselves outpaced by a news cycle that demands 24-hour presence. While Mr. Nixon could channel his message and improve his image by carefully selecting from a handful of programs, candidates today are practically required to go on air and act “relatable” to even clear the primaries. Can a candidate still use this strategy of limited, heartwarming, and tasteful interjections into the American living room and ride the feeling to the White House? Or have our pineal glands been saturated to the point that these tactics fade into the background of an already hyperactive political landscape? No candidate has borrowed more tactics from Mr. Nixon’s strategy and has sought to test, disregard, and adapt this scheme than the ringleader of this cycle’s circus, the Democratic frontrunner herself.
Hillary Clinton’s latest gig on Saturday Night Live follows a laundry list of comedy stints, late night appearances, and talk show interviews the candidate has sandwiched into her busy schedule. She appears laughing, singing, joking, and drinking with the rest of the cast in bits that are sometimes self-aware and critique how each booking is overtly a PR stunt. Although self-deprecation typically humanizes a candidate and builds bridges beyond the Beltway without excessively demeaning her role, does Hillary’s frequent use of this medium trivialize the office she seeks? Supporting her platform and broadening her appeal may be the intentions, but the results speak for themselves. According to an October CBS News poll, only 33% of Americans view Mrs. Clinton favorably; a September Quinnipiac poll shows 68% of independents view her as dishonest and untrustworthy. Last month, USA Today revealed that “liar” is America’s number one go-to word for Secretary Clinton. As the primary season unfolds after the first debate, the question at hand is: can she elevate her personal side over the din of daytime pundits without selling the job short?
Mrs. Clinton’s fall from grace in the 2008 election came as she too easily assumed the role of nominee. Emerging from a brutal primary, in which her campaign hedged their bets on one more state or one more superdelegate, the American people decided they were not ready for the “inevitable:” a May 2008 New York Times/CBS poll found 74% of voters would be disappointed if Hillary was the Democratic nominee. Senator Clinton realized she too was tired with the old Hillary.
Going back eight years and reexamining the Clinton camp’s misdirection must be an unpleasant reflection for a candidate once touted as “the best thing to happen to the” Democratic Party of this generation. Plagued by unnecessary and frequent overspending, the bullheaded campaign misunderstood the Democratic delegate system and overlooked the typically minor primaries that helped fuel the Obama grassroots surge. That a senator and three former governors withdrew their bids before the junior senator from New York announced did nothing to discredit that the primary was depicted as her ‘rightful’ coronation. Mark Penn, longtime Clinton confidant and Hillary’s 2008 chief political strategist, believed her sheer political clout would drown out her opponents once she swept the early primaries, leading him to subject his boss and staff to outlandish strategy memos mistaking that “Being human is overrated,” and later, “The idea that this can be won all on smiles, emotions, and empathy is simply wrong.” The unintended effects of these diagnoses became clear, at least for everyone watching, when the candidate touting experience, strength, and decisiveness translated as cold, callous, and calculating on an MSNBC stage in Philadelphia. At the October 2007 Democratic primary debate, or as the Clinton camp later described the night, “The Politics of Pile-On,” Mrs. Clinton publicly flip-flopped on her controversial stance on granting illegal immigrants driver’s licenses. In just three minutes the playing field destabilized; the unstoppable force had revealed her Achilles heel.
Now, debate could never again be centered on experience. America wanted change. The country wanted to believe in a brighter future. And as noted liar John Edwards mentioned later in the debate, we were looking for a candidate who “will say the same thing, who will be consistent, who will be straight with us.” Continuously on the defensive, Hillary was not able to channel a unique message beyond her longtime experience in Washington and, ironically, could not capitalize on a message of change. Frankly, the story she spun was dull (and, 64% of Democrats agreed). Now the story was about the African-American freshman senator from Illinois whose captivating speeches and juggernaut rise had captured the cycle’s sentiment and rode it beyond anyone’s expectations. Mr. Obama’s invigorating campaign, combined with Mrs. Clinton’s unwillingness to apologize for her highly controversial Iraq War vote, splintered her metaphorical pedestal, initiating her image’s fall. Senator Obama and his TV ads had characterized the mood perfectly: America was tired of “same old politics.”
By April, the Clinton camp lugged along. Having won only 16 primaries of 47 and burnt through money faster than she could raise it, the idea of resigning remained off the table. Although by dismissing Mr. Penn she reduced infighting and began to hone a more focused message directed towards her base—the move was far too late. Fifty-eight percent of Americans already viewed her as “dishonest and untrustworthy,” a 23% deficit to Mr. Obama among Democrats as reported in an ABC News/Washington Post poll. A statistic no doubt inflated by her public announcement that she “misspoke” about “landing under sniper fire” in Bosnia in 1996. Pew found 53% of Americans felt Mrs. Clinton was “hard to like,” perhaps after another one of Bill’s gaffes in South Carolina regarding Mr. Obama’s skin color isolated Hillary’s African-American support. Finally acknowledging the writing on the wall, Mrs. Clinton bowed out of the race with a 41% approval rating, tarnished perhaps by petty accusations that Mr. Obama may have plagiarized his rousing speeches, or, by more incendiary campaign tactics, asserting on 60 Minutes that Mr. Obama was not a Muslim…“as far as I know.”
Mrs. Clinton’s concession speech bore no relation to her announcement (“I’m in, and I’m in to win”), which depicted her lounging alone in her rustically, yet all-too-perfectly decorated living room. She described a “conversation” she wanted to have with the American people, which was ironic, if not tacky, coming from a one-sided pre-taped video. In a sense, this practiced in its passion delivery foreshadowed the problems Hillary would eventually face on the campaign trail and spoke volumes to the common perception of her campaign: it was all about her, never about the people she wanted to serve. Yet in June 2008, Mrs. Clinton sang a different tune. Her concession speech was delivered before an uproarious rally of mothers and their children, many crying but all applauding. Thanking her supporters for the lasting impact they had left on the nation, Mrs. Clinton declared, “Although we weren't able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it's got about 18 million cracks in it.” Between jokes about women in space but not in the White House and emotional anecdotes from the campaign trail, a glimmer of the personable Hillary Clinton shown through. The woman unclouded by teams of campaign pollsters and unglued from her teleprompter, the one we all thought would be the 44th President. It made for a truly uplifting, emotional moment that, for a moment, even made CSPAN engaging. The speech Mrs. Clinton needed to make; the speech that could have come to define her campaign; the speech with a powerful, refreshing message that energized her base, and causally, the country; a speech too late to matter.
When asked in the September 1960 American National Election Study why they planned on supporting Vice President Richard Nixon, voters were clear: “experience” led the pack by 15%. When the same question was asked of Kennedy supporters, “character and background” won out with “personal attraction” six percentage points behind. To even uncover where “personal attraction” registered on the Nixon data sheet is to find it at a lowly 3%, tied with the horribly broad and vague response: “issues.” Even asking a basic question about Mr. Nixon’s personal life most likely left pollsters dumbfounded in doorways as they found only 34% of Americans could accurately guess his religion (Quakerism) and 48% his home state (California). The man was second-in-line for eight years, featured in thousands of nationally syndicated editorials, and debated successfully against the archenemy, but some voters were more prepared to vote for his dog than him in 1960. The American public knew of him—they just didn’t know about him and weren’t really interested in knowing any more.
Four days after Mr. Kennedy edged out Mr. Nixon in almost every battleground state, he told the press, “It was the TV more than anything else that turned the tide,” a reference to the September 26, 1960 debate that forever changed the idea of a president’s television appeal. The impact was so profound on Mr. Nixon himself that the medium was not used again until 1976, after Mr. Nixon’s time in elected office had concluded. Pale, acerbic, and sweating, Mr. Nixon’s sickly, awkward image was broadcast to 66 million homes; it forever cemented in the minds of voters that the Republican nominee was as bland and washed out as his grey suit and face were on television. The young (only 20% of Americans knew the actual age difference between the candidates was four years), poised, and vibrant Mr. Kennedy captured the eyes of viewers and made a lasting connection that could never come across in newspaper photos. The qualifications for president now were no longer limited to “Which candidate’s experience best prepared him to keep the US out of WWIII?” (Mr. Nixon wins by over 20%) or “Which man could deal with America’s leaders best?” (Another Mr. Nixon win of over 10%): the candidate needed to meet these benchmarks but also be the guy you wanted sitting on that living room couch, sipping a beer, right next to you. Once the process incorporated this element, Mr. Nixon was down and out. The wonkish, spurned Mr. Nixon left 1960 with a bad taste in his mouth for television and the press that only festered as the years wore on. According to voters, the leader of the free world could not just be experienced, intelligent, and capable. He had to be photogenic and, more importantly, cool.
Further kicked around after his resounding defeat in the 1962 California gubernatorial race, Mr. Nixon gave his “last press conference,” and Time Magazine declared, “Barring a miracle, his political career has ended.” However, this interim period in which Mr. Nixon ‘left’ politics came to redefine his public persona. Appearing on the wildly popular late-night talk show, The Jack Paar Program, in March 1963, Mr. Nixon was loose and literally rising from his seat laughing at Mr. Paar’s jokes. When Mr. Nixon began to speak, he placed a friendly hand on Mr. Paar’s cuff and cracked a self-deprecating joke about his electability and President Truman’s piano skills. As the punchline landed, Mr. Nixon leapt from his seat, smiling widely, and the in-studio audience loved it. While the camera followed him towards the main set, and he passed between spotlights for a few seconds, a sustained grin plastered across his face telling himself, “Dick, you really hit a homerun.” Suddenly, the lights dimmed. The former vice president sat before a grand piano and began to play a self-composed concerto for prime-time Friday night entertainment. Before Bill Clinton picked up a saxophone, Richard Nixon had beaten him there on the ivories. The composition snippet only took up a minute of air time, but left the viewer stunned by the man’s artistic skill. Although he was still the same jowly, stern Nixon, watching his hyper-focused fingers meticulously glaze across piano keys and produce a melody evoked larger character traits that both humanized him and gave his notorious tenacity new meaning. When his fingers released their possession of the music and he waved to the audience, a glad-handing Mr. Paar ran to meet the maestro as the crowd erupted with applause. Beaming, Mr. Nixon exited stage right, seemingly without ever unlocking hands with Mr. Paar. The host’s astonished monologue, the studio still echoing with cheers: who knew Nixon could be cool?
From 1967 to his election, Mr. Nixon blitzed the comedy talk shows. From Johnny Carson to Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas to Joey Bishop, Mr. Nixon was on a mission to expunge the public’s collective memory of the stiff, slimy politician that repulsed them eight years prior. On The Tonight Show, when asked if he was running for president, he joked he could not respond because he “was saving the answer for The Joey Bishop Show. I’ve been reading the ratings, and he needs it.” With a light jab on CBS followed by a comical observation on NBC, Richard Nixon’s finely coiffed stardom had grown exponentially and now bore no relation to the ghostly man who once haunted television screens across the country. A trippy variety show cameo, however, would wipe the slate clean and culminate Mr. Nixon’s evolution of image.
Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In was a comedy sketch show that became the favorite of an audience looking for less politically charged humor than The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. With heavy themes of psychedelia and vaudeville, the hippie generation had found a show to call their own. Nevertheless, so influential was the program that many of its stars went on to lead successful careers, and its absurd catchphrases seeped into the lexicon. Not exactly the stomping ground for the straight-laced Republican Party nominee. But there he was, six weeks from the election, unexpectedly for five seconds, uttering four words into the camera: “Sock it to me?” Famous last words for guest stars that normally immediately became the object of some form of slapstick. Although it took six takes because Mr. Nixon could not deliver the line without sounding angry or offended, the end product showed him deliver the unusual one-liner, which leaves the viewer just as confused yet delighted by what just occurred as his tonal emphasis and exaggerated blinking implied. He had lowered himself to the level of offbeat televised sketch humor and connected with a demographic never before seen possible. The creator of Laugh-In, George Schlatter, later remarked, “Appearing on Laugh-In is what got him elected—and I believe that. And I've had to live with that.” Tricky Dick had finally won the image war and become the goofy and relatable uncle that you could allow to be your president.
The onetime presumed Democratic nominee found herself taping a video for the reincarnation of the show that defrosted Mr. Nixon’s icy touch. The former first lady, former two term senator, and current secretary of state was coming to the aid of a late night show with lousy ratings and a host set to be removed two months later. But as Coco introduced the special guest’s function on the show—she was here to arbitrate his “squabble with Mayor of Newark, NJ, Cory Booker”—the revitalization of Hillary Clinton and the media had officially begun. For a minute, she stares into The Tonight Show’s camera, admits she knows nothing of the dispute, and makes fun of the whole ordeal taking particular shots at Conan. Yet Mrs. Clinton was glassy-eyed, gazing into the electric cue cards illuminating right below the camera. The jokes were funny, but the timing was off, and the entire clip was plagued by what felt odd about her 2007 announcement: the emotions seemed timed and robotic. But why should she care? In October 2009, she was enjoying one of the highest favorability ratings of her entire career, 62% according to Gallup. Just as Mr. Nixon had done with Mr. Paar in 1963, this broadcast kept Mrs. Clinton relevant, but unlike Mr. Nixon, she did not need to connect to the voter or even be in the same studio. In the moment, it kept her topical, but for her image development, this was a grossly missed opportunity.
Having left public office as secretary of state over a year earlier, Hillary the saleswoman could emerge, but she was pushing more than her new memoir; she was marketing her reshuffled image to the American people. In an impromptu August 2014 interview on The Colbert Report, the topic of course was her new book, and, more specifically, all the name-drops in it, but she was there setting the stage for a presidential run. Smiling and laughing through the interview, Mrs. Clinton is in top form. She had been fed the right memos and had refined her comedic composure. In conversation, she jumps from light-hearted one-upmanship over who has met more famous people to how Secretary Clinton would have negotiated a solution to the “hard choice” of which she would rather fight: one horse-sized duck or a hundred duck-sized horses. Combining levity with a cleverly plugged demonstration of experience, Mrs. Clinton sticks to the same formula as ’08 but has retooled the way in which she conveys the message. This ‘surprise’ was less campaign stop and more book promotion, but in the period before she had actually declared, the objective is still discernable: tasteful self-promotion by appearing natural and approachable that sells copies but, in the end, also herself.
As the summer of Trump waned, Mrs. Clinton sat down on The Ellen DeGeneres Show for her first live television appearance since her second candidacy began. In an open-air New York City arena in front of hundreds of women, Mrs. Clinton made her gender central to the message. Listing the songs she once sang to her daughter and now her granddaughter, lamenting over when she had to use Bill’s name to apply for a credit card in the 1970s even as she “was making more money,” and dodging the growing image issue of age, telling Ellen, “I would be the youngest woman ever elected president.” In an election about progression, Hillary Clinton is singing a different tune and making the obvious message tucked away eight years ago, central to the campaign. But again, Mrs. Clinton’s inevitability trap haunts her campaign and seeps into a usually jovial conversation. When asked what she would like her infant granddaughter to call her, the candidate, who at the time was losing by 8% in New Hampshire, suggested she would prefer to be addressed as “Madame President,” a presumptuous statement that nonetheless was met with mass applause. After an interview that discussed a potential 2020 run against Kanye West and included a spontaneously excited high-five to “The happiness and peace agenda,” the Clinton camp thought it necessary that their candidate do the Whip/Nae Nae. If the idea was to make their candidate appear less stern and austere, the effect was cringe-inducing and the effort counterproductive. Although I would like to learn, watching the potential leader of the free world sway about on stage like she had casts bound under her electric blue pantsuit was not a helpful tutorial. The act was so unbecoming that it almost rendered null any inspirational message she had tried to convey earlier. The master class Clinton that came to the Colbert interview and mixed comedy and qualifications is the candidate to vote for, not this minstrel show. This all too earnest agenda just looks like pandering, and even at that, she is trying way too hard.
An interview and skit on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon later that week went over well, as the smart, capable, and tasteful candidate Clinton shone through. Even if her Donald Trump impersonation was hardly recognizable, she ridiculed him by hosting a mock interview with Fallon as Trump. It may have been inappropriate to lay into any other politician like this if the man himself was not a sideshow. The shoulder bopping to “Cheerleader” that closed out the skit, however, did not render irreparable damage to her general message because the interview itself saw her stick to the policy message. “Raising Americans’ incomes,” she said in response to what her defining issue is, “Getting more money into your paycheck so you can have a better chance and a better shot.” It looked as if she had learned to use the medium correctly as it generated applause and attention, until she made a regression once again and talked about Lenny Kravitz’s “stuff.”
Mrs. Clinton’s latest shtick on SNL was not much to write about (except for Kate McKinnon’s performance, stellar as always). The white collar on Mrs. Clinton’s blouse should not have fooled you; her targeted demographic was abundantly clear. As Val the bartender, she is there to listen to your concerns and, just like any folksy working American, has sage advice to ease your struggle. Yet she is so over-the-top in defending herself through tongue-in-cheek comedy that the stint itself comes off forced and artificially fabricated.
Has the stature of the office fallen so low that we feel open to critiquing how entertaining a public servant is? Yes — and we can thank Richard Nixon for that. He recognized the small screen’s power in image crafting and used it to his advantage. When picking who should come for a White House visit, Mr. Nixon wrote in his papers, “I would like to invite, even though I don’t like most of these people: Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, and Mike Douglas. This could pay off in great measure to us.” Mr. Nixon harnessed the power of television talk by combining message and jokes without disparaging the office by making the gags too ridiculous. Occasionally he was silly, but it had purpose without letting the purpose constrain the humor.
Being entertaining may mean much more for Hillary Clinton than ever before. Nevertheless, polling shows the futility of her labors. Her favorability rating is at its lowest in 23 years, and when ABC News asked voters in September if Mrs. Clinton had empathy, 51% said no (a career high). Her image problem is not going away, and maybe it never will.
But there is light at the end of the tunnel. In the first Democratic debate, Hillary presented herself as a relatable, magnetic candidate without feeling the need to sell out. She was dignified and balanced the semblances of common woman as well as presidential candidate. The public responded in kind and a post-debate Suffolk University poll found Mrs. Clinton ahead of Mr. Sanders in New Hampshire for the first time since early August. Even former Republican frontrunner and fallen star, Scott Walker, remarked after the debate, “She came across as surprisingly, very confident and I thought relatively pleasant.” The debate proved that not every staged event has to devolve into a pageant for charlatans. A testament to how message and stature can enter the American collective consciousness without excessive folly. However, Professor Boorstin, while critiquing the essence of the first presidential debates, reminded us, “Pseudo-events thus lead to emphasis on pseudo-qualifications…If we test Presidential candidates by their talents on TV quiz performances, we will, of course, choose presidents for precisely these qualifications. In a democracy, reality tends to conform to the pseudo-event. Nature imitates art.”
Undoubtedly, Richard Nixon’s façade of the 1960s would easily be unmasked by the modern press (as it notably once was) as the beast he learned to tame has come to devour the process. And playing in this increasingly complicated field is Mrs. Clinton, who tries to strike a balance between what bolsters Trumpnado and keeps Lincoln Chafee “a block of granite.” But once Mr. Nixon opened the Pandora’s box, and news and entertainment started their journey towards coalescence, for a presidential run, late night and variety show engagement became necessary. If you applied for a high-clearance, high-demand, high-risk job, should one of your qualifications be that you can (barely) voice several Simpsons characters or reignite a popstar feud by singing “Bad Blood?” Does the ability to represent the nation’s interests necessitate this? Of course not, but that does not mean candidates should not have personalities: political characters engage the electorate in politics. But our long honored political tradition is starting to resemble America’s Got Talent a bit too much. Unfortunately for Hillary, she’s damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t. In the modern campaign, the line between those who govern and those who entertain has blurred. As voters, we must now ask ourselves: is this what we expect? Is this what we want? Is this what we deserve?
The image featured in this article was taken by Brett Weinstein. The original image can be found here.
Brett Barbin is a fourth-year Public Policy and Political Science double-major, interested in American history, geography, and political rhetoric. This summer, he worked in the investigative division of the Public Defender Service for DC and previously served as the Deputy Political Director for Senator Mark Kirk’s re-election campaign. On campus, Brett is the president of College Republicans, the vice president of the Political Union, and a College Council representative. He enjoys walking Chicago, collecting books, and reading way too much into public opinion polls.