BY ROBERT TRUSSELL
I just love it when reality and fantasy collide.
Luckily for me, we live at a time when it’s almost impossible to tell the difference. Objectivity barely exists in public discourse, and the daily media-political mashup is the equivalent of a demolition derby.
“Politics is show business for ugly people,” analyst Paul Begala reportedly said in the ’90s. True enough, but the politics-as-showbiz era started long before.
If you want to pinpoint the moment when political decorum began its long downhill slide, then I vote for Richard Nixon’s two-second appearance on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-in” in 1968 when he was running for president.
Nixon looked at the camera and deadpanned the show’s signature line with an incredulous tone: “Sock it to me?”
Think of Tricky Dick’s novel decision to lower himself to the garish world of show business as a pebble bouncing down a mountainside that would be followed in time by a relentless avalanche.
Nixon was a legitimate political leader — a former vice president who had served in both the U.S. House and Senate — and his appearance on a prime-time variety show that riffed on ’60s counterculture was an amusing anomaly. And it raised an obvious question: Didn’t the candidate have better things to do? Crafting position papers on the Vietnam War, perhaps, or the nuclear arms race?
But Nixon had learned his lesson. In his earlier bid for the White house in 1960 he met in a series of televised debates with the future president, John F. Kennedy. The medium chewed him up and spit him out.
The debates trumped rhetoric with visuals: the relaxed, articulate Kennedy vs. the ill-at-ease Nixon, whose 5 o’clock shadow and sweaty face made him look scared and indecisive. By ’68, he’d wised up. Now he meant to be in control. He would use the medium, not the other way around.
Politicians were still figuring out how to dance with the succubus of television in the ’50s and ’60s because politics and TV were seen as separate worlds. Politics was serious business, historical clay being modeled by dour white men in dark suits in the Oval Office and the halls of Congress. TV was a box in your living room where you could watch rigged game shows, aging comedians hosting variety hours or Marshal Dillon blowing away frontier sociopaths.
One thing TV did have was journalists — a gallery of grumpy middle-aged guys who were credited with presenting something close to objective reality through the evening news and Sunday panel shows. Anchors were not yet considered stars. Journalists were not exactly celebrities. Not yet.
The politics-as-showbiz era began in earnest in 1980, when Ronald Reagan, a former Hollywood actor and TV pitchman, won the White House.
Reagan was an adequate actor in movies (his last feature-film role was as the heavy in “The Killers,” a 1964 Don Siegel crime flick with Lee Marvin, John Cassavetes and Angie Dickinson), but I think most Republicans and Democrats would agree that his greatest performance was as President Ronald Reagan.
Reagan never lost his handsome jawline — he always looked great in a Stetson — and at the podium spoke with a conviction that betrayed no hint of hypocrisy, no dissembling, just pure starry-eyed belief in the shining city on a hill. Sometimes that could be a little scary.
In 1980 he sat for an interview with televangelist Jim Bakker on “The PTL Club” in a bid to curry favor with evangelical voters and declared that “we may be the generation that sees Armageddon” — a cheery thought from a guy who would soon have access to nuclear launch codes.
Whether Reagan really believed everything that came out of his mouth is a question for historians to answer. But like any great pitchman, he made us believe that he believed.
After Reagan completed his two terms, during which he theatrically pursued a program of deregulation, tax cuts, defense spending and saber-rattling, I held out hope that we could watch him resume his acting career. Chalk it up to my weakness for post-modern weirdness. Just think if he had been available for, say, “Independence Day” or “Armageddon.” How wonderful it would have been to watch the roster of stars in the opening credits conclude with: “And Ronald Reagan as the President.”
No doubt about it, Reagan led the way. He showed us that qualifications didn’t matter. There’s just one goal: Become a celebrity. Be a salesman. In the words of playwright David Mamet, always be closing.
These days news people interview each other. Actors pretend to be journalists. Presidents go on talk shows. Politicians and celebs alike snort airtime like cokeheads. Stephen Colbert, like his mentor Jon Stewart, has become an obligatory TV stop for power-seekers, except now he’s talking to talking heads on a late-night network broadcast instead of a late-night basic cable comedy show.
Barack Obama, a sitting president, agreed to appear on daytime gabfest “The View.” And why not? Obama is the most TV-friendly president in history. It’s hard to name a talk show he hasn’t gone on.
George and Laura Bush calculatedly demeaned themselves by sitting for an interview with Dr. Phil — the celebrity psychologist who became a star after appearances on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show — to discuss parenting.
Earlier, candidate Bill Clinton in his 1992 race for the White House put on a pair of sunglasses and played “Heartbreak Hotel” on the sax for Arsenio Hall’s TV audience.
Think about that for a minute. Try to imagine President Dwight D. Eisenhower going on “What’s My Line?” or “I’ve Got a Secret.”
We now live in an age when anyone can become an actor and any celebrity can run for office. For a Republican Watergate lawyer and U.S. senator, Fred Thompson was a pretty good actor as long as he played characters that were a lot like Fred Thompson. Sonny Bono was a pretty good congressman for a ’60s pop singer.
When the current GOP presidential candidates lined up for televised debates, it was tough to see them as anything but deadpan comedians.
There was Donald Trump, former reality TV star and “self-made” jillionaire, jutting his jaw as if posing for a Roman bust. Many a blogger compared Carly Fiorina’s demeanor to Cruella de Vil. And Jeb Bush, looking like a deer caught in the headlights, wishing he could rent a thimble of Trump’s charisma.
This is where we are: Politics as performance art.
There is a wild card out there, though: Bernie Sanders. His rumpled persona falls far short of movie-star translucence, and the pundits all say he doesn’t have a chance.
But I have to say the idea of a debate between Bernie and the Donald would make some fine television.
This article originally appeared in the Kansas City Star on Oct. 3, 2015. Go to www.kansascity.com.