FLOTSAM & JETSAM: How we lost the White House to show business

Sunday, December 02, 2018

How we lost the White House to show business


Sam Smith - The recent media obsequiousness about the death of George H W Bush has been  virtually unlimited. Aside from a few places such as Intercept, Slate and the Progressive Review, it was impossible to find stories describing any negative aspects of his presidency.

Watching how today's media describe a story you lived through thirty years ago is often disappointing but particularly in the case of a president because as I noted just before the election of George H W Bush, "We all speak television now. American life has become a docudrama and we keep forgetting which part we just invented."

It really began with the Kennedy-Nixon television debate. While it was a godsend that Kennedy was elected, there is no doubt that his visual personality played a big part. In fact, polls taken after the debate found that Kennedy had won the TV version while Nixon had won among radio listeners.

It is interesting to note that Lyndon Johnson, the modern president who got the most good legislation passed in the least time (albeit along with a awful war) is hardly mentioned any more while the media goes gaga over GHW.

Ronald Reagan was our first president elected for being a television and movie personality. But as I wrote at the time, GHW made it a tradition. 

The price for this has not been cheap. For example, by the time Bill Clinton came along, the media only paid homage to his skill as its manipulator with little attention to the the role of corruption in his real Arkansas story. I sometimes suspect that Trump's decision to run for president was based in part with a sense that "if Clinton can get away with it, I certainly can."

In any case, since Reagan we have been electing presidents by media image rather than by reality. And we're paying the price. 

Sam Smith, November 1988
- This year's presidential campaign, otherwise without socially redeeming virtue, has at least effectively destroyed the myth of Ronald Reagan as mediameister. George Bush has proved that anybody can do it. This had been long concealed because of a natural confusion between cause and effect. Reagan appeared to be manipulating the media when, in fact, he was simply reaping the benefits of being its most diligent and well-behaved student-politician. What appeared to be a Stygian skill called from deep within him was nothing more than a long and total commitment to the media's own rules and mores.

That the effect can be replicated virtually at will was amply demonstrated by the Bush campaign. Bush entered the race absent a verifiable microcurie of charisma, with little rhetorical ability, and seemingly lacking even elemental shrewdness.

Yet his media triumph has put even that of the Great Prevaricator to shame. What took Reagan years of GE commercials to achieve, Bush has mastered in a few short weeks. The dramatic alteration of the presumed persona of George Bush should come as no surprise to students of the tube. After all, television long ago learned that talent was the least of its requirements. It discovered it didn't need a comedian as good as Ernie Kovacs, a journalist as good as Edward R. Murrow or some actress imported from Broadway to fill a dramatic role. It could simply manufacture a reasonable likeness out of the endless pool of attractive, inoffensive faces and bodies trooping through its casting offices.

George Bush stars in this season's mini-series: The Presidency, Part XXXXI.  We all speak television now. American life has become a docudrama and we keep forgetting which part we just invented. Reality as nostalgia, In such an environment it is small wonder that we choose our presidents for their symbolic virtue more for their policies, that political debates are really little than national screen tests, and that facts have become the icing on the cake of myth. We are not electing a president any more. We are selecting a mediarch, one who rules through the media. The person we chose is the one who best performs the symbolic role of president as we would like to see it on TV. Presidential elections have become a process by which the American voting public decides which advertising agency it likes best.