Columns, Opinion

SELIBER: The hipster president

When Barack Obama appeared via satellite on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on Oct. 30, five days before the election, he knew he was going to win. You could see it in his face, in his relaxed and chirpy demeanor, and in the way he joked about the ‘Bradley Effect’ by saying his white genes might force him to vote for John McCain on Nov. 4. This thing was in the bag.

However, I might be obscuring the truly remarkable thing about all that: Obama appeared on The Daily Show five days before the election! Here he was, the guy who could be the most powerful man in the world ‘-‘- and now will be ‘-‘- and he’s doing comedy shows. Not only that, but he gave ‘exclusive’ interviews in the closing weeks to the likes of Bill O’Reilly, David Letterman, Ellen DeGeneres and most of the major news networks, not to mention his half-hour infomercial that led into Game 5 of the World Series.

What about John McCain? Why, that salty septuagenarian went into television overdrive as judgment day crept toward us. The more hopeless his chances looked, the more frequently he booked himself on every last program that would take him, closing with a last-ditch self-parody on NBC’s Saturday Night Live, during which he and Tina Fey tried to sell us some dishware and a Joe Biden bobble head doll.

Americans have become so accustomed to a campaign system dominated by ’round-the-clock cable news and the ubiquitous candidate that we forget how very young this system is. It might not seem particularly noteworthy to you that Obama would put in a friendly Daily Show appearance amidst all his other activities, or that McCain would pal around with NBC, and you’re right. Today it’s all part of the compact that candidates for high office appeal directly to the masses via our favorite television programs. Remember Obama, McCain and Sen. Hillary Clinton on that WWE promo? For them, television is the most inexpensive and painless form of mass pandering.

And yet it was only four short years ago that John Kerry’s own late-in-the-game Daily Show drop-in was considered kind of a big deal ‘-‘- a new standard in the hipping of presidential politics. (Ironic enough, considering the man). Actually, Kerry appeared with Jon Stewart in late August 2004 ‘-‘- relatively early in the campaign ‘-‘- but the resulting interview was noteworthy enough for Tucker Carlson to berate Stewart on CNN’s Crossfire for not asking sufficiently hard-hitting questions of the Democratic candidate. In a now-legendary exchange, Stewart eviscerated Carlson by explaining that The Daily Show peddles unaccountable satire while programs like Crossfire carry an actual air of responsibility, which they often fail to live up to. Crossfire was cancelled three months later, after 23 years on the air.

But then Kerry didn’t start this tradition, either. There was also Bill Clinton in 1992 appearing on The Arsenio Hall Show playing ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ on the saxophone, and sitting with MTV to talk about (not) smoking marijuana and his undergarments of choice. Heck, we can follow the bread crumbs all the way back to Richard Nixon in 1968 and his glorious five seconds telling a Laugh-In crowd to ‘Sock it to me!’

In effect, we’ve borne witness to a slowly evolving synergy of politics and entertainment, which is a slightly less troubling in-law to the synergy of news and entertainment. Politicians and television are natural together, but only now has it gelled into a perfect marriage ‘-‘- or perhaps a perfectly dysfunctional marriage?’ Four years out, that fateful Crossfire episode and its aftermath was the turning point ‘-‘- the shift of late-night television from being a disposable sideshow to a part of the main act.

Then again, the real test of whether politics and entertainment have totally merged will come on Jan. 20, 2009, when America transitions from its hippest presidential nominee to its hippest president. Our president-elect has vowed incessantly not only to restore accountability to the executive mansion, but to knock down a wall or two between the president himself and his constituents, we the people. The Obama campaign certainly ran on those values. Will the Obama White House follow suit?

At this early date I would lean toward ‘yes.’ I can easily imagine a President Obama paying visits to New York every once in a while ‘-‘- during the summer, on a slow news day ‘-‘- and mingling with some real Americans, answering real questions. No, I wouldn’t expect it to last; the president is a busy man. But a few months of that would be reassuring, befitting Obama’s reputation for cool and suggesting this man really isn’t a phony. After all, we now inhabit a country where, on Election Night, millions of Americans (myself included) first learned of Obama’s victory not from Tom Brokaw or Wolf Blitzer, but from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

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