THE NEW YORKER MAGAZINE – June 16, 1998
Of course the President’s ratings are up.
THE SUDDEN SPIKE in Bill Clinton’s popularity is baffling only to those who still think of politics as an autonomous realm, existing apart from entertainment. For modern Americans, politics happens on television. And the titillating new story line that gooses the ratings of an old hit show (Paul and Jamie having a baby on “Mad About You,” say) is now an established TV gimmick. Before the Monica Lewinsky subplot, the audience was beginning to get bored with the Clinton Administration. Now they’re interested again.
The transmutation of Presidential politics into entertainment got going, of course, with J.F.K.: he used show biz brilliantly for four years as a telegenic Cary Grant manqué; it used him for four posthumous days as the star of the most compelling TV event ever. Up until then, the wall between government and show business was thick—just as the membrane between serious high art and trashy pop culture had been almost impermeable. The radical blurring of boundaries that Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein had brought irreversibly to modern art in the early sixties Kennedy brought at the same moment, to politics.
After Kennedy, President as performer became explicit, literal, and acknowledged. The first President from Los Angeles, Richard Nixon, made it to the White House only after saying “Sock it to me!” on “Laugh-In.” Ronald Reagan’s handlers created campaign-appearance tableaux with TV images in mind; Nancy Reagan performed a cameo on “Diff’rent Strokes”; Henry Kissinger did “Dynasty.” In 1992, candidate Clinton put on shades to blow the saxophone on “The Arsenio Hall Show,” and five years later President Clinton appeared as the character “President Clinton” in the made-for-TV movie “A Child’s Wish.”
For a decade or two after J.F.K., the show-biz-politics trade deficit was very much in Washington’s favor. Politicians used the tradecraft of entertainment to win office and stay there. But then in the eighties—some time after Reagan, the former movie actor, was shot by John W. Hinckley, Jr., because Hinckley had a crush on Jodie Foster—the balance of trade shifted, and politics in fundamental ways became entertainment. Washington journalists turned themselves into Punch-and-Judy figures for “The McLaughlin Group” and “Crossfire.” A decade ago, Howard Stern and Don Imus were just smart, flabbergasting radio clowns; now Governor Whitman and Senator D’Amato are on-the-air pals of Stern’s, and Imus trades one-liners with Presidential candidates. When congressmen appear on “Politically Incorrect” to joke around with starlets, and Vice-President Gore goes on Letterman, they’re smirking about the very idea of political seriousness. It’s the latest frontier of the culture’s irony juggernaut: first it was cheeseballs like Wayne Newton and Robert Goulet playing along while hipsters ridiculed them; now it’s our elected officials. By the time the White House objected to the unauthorized use of footage of Clinton in the Jodie Foster movie “Contact” last year, it seemed rote and disingenuous, bureaucratic white noise.
During the peaceful, prosperous Clinton years, as the large political questions have seemed mostly settled, the lack of interest in Washington has become profound. Aside from Clinton’s reëlection, what were the compelling political stories of the last two years? “Primary Colors,” Paula Jones, Sonny Bono skiing into a tree—in a word, farce. Yet even as politics has become a kind of low-production-value subgenre of show business, engaging only when it is entertaining, it has also remained, as ever, slightly behind the curve. (That’s why old campaign commercials inevitably look several years more dated than commercials from the same year for potato chips or shampoo.) In the nineties, the pop-culture cutting edge has been a mass-market explicitness. In “Deconstructing Harry,” the current Woody Allen movie, a woman performs fellatio on her brother-in-law during a family get-together, and the best-known episode of “Seinfeld” involves a masturbation contest. Don’t go there? We’re there. So when serious journalists started asking Clinton about having sex with an intern, people were not so much alarmed or appalled as thrilled and amazed. The ground had been softened up for an unfettered national conversation about Monica and Bill. The Times’ vague euphemism for the alleged Paula Jones fellatio request had been “a crude sexual advance.” How priggish the media still were way back then, in January.
Until now, there had been topical subjects too grubby for anyone except comedians or the tabloids to touch, and on the other side of the bright media line were subjects of high consequence; for the first time ever, there is no line—it’s both consequential and as grubby as it gets. Anchors and pundits can’t not discuss Monica Lewinsky’s “Presidential kneepads,” so they overcompensate by keeping absurdly straight faces, affecting a solemnity that the slapstick subject cannot really sustain. Only entertainment programs seem easily able to strike the appropriate tone: the most nuanced and interesting remarks by the Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff, who uncovered the story, were on David Letterman’s show. Even Clinton’s official defenders seem to understand what business they’re in. Rahm Emmanuel, senior Presidential adviser (and the brother of a Hollywood agent), has said again and again to the TV cameras that “the only common thread” between Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky is that “they’re both twenty-four years old.” That’s entertainment.