Sunday, December 09, 2007

The Oprah Primary

In the world of politics, time can move at a glacial pace. But in the world of political elections, time moves with amazing speed. This reality was driven home to me this weekend, as Barack Obama stormed the nation with Oprah Winfrey by his side.

Do you remember the Arsenio Hall Show? Hall was the host of an 11:30 pm late night program in the late '80s and early '90s. It aired on the then-fledgling Fox network. Hall was a young African-American man and he represented a distinct challenge to the white late-night hegemon, Johnny Carson, who had by then been hosting his Tonight show for more than a decade. David Letterman had a 12:30 am show that aired after Carson. Jay Leno was the hardest working comedian in America but didn't host his own show. Conan O'Brien wasn't on the air.

So Hall was a distinct break with tradition. His show cultivated a much younger, much hipper, more ethnically diverse audience than the Tonight Show. And in 1992, while the presidential primaries were underway, a Democratic Governor from Arkansas came on Hall's show. He wore dark sunglasses and played his saxophone. He was charming and engaging; he played a creditable sax. Hall welcomed him with open arms and the audience was charmed.

The sax player's name was Bill Clinton and by the end of the year he was the president-elect of the United States.

In the immediate aftermath of Clinton's appearance on the Hall show, the mainstream media and political elite had the equivalent of a political hissy fit. Clinton was mocked for the appearance on the Hall show. It wasn't presidential; it was informal and undignified; what political agenda could he advance by playing the sax and looking cool? What real political issues would he talk about with Hall? It simply wasn't done, this appearance on the Arsenio Hall Show.

The subtext of these criticisms was significantly more troubling: black male power in the form of Hall and his guest, a Washington outsider who was a political unknown from a white trash state, was a challenge not just to Johnny Carson and traditional television programming. It was a challenge to the political hegemony of the day. Clinton used the Arsenio Hall show to present himself as a real person. He was willing to engage with the voting public on all levels. He would discuss the issues, certainly. But he would also discuss himself in terms other Americans could easily understand: as a regular guy who was once a teenager who dreamt of playing in a rock and roll band. The mainstream media didn't understand. Clinton's '92 opponent, incumbent President George H.W. Bush, an elite's elite, certainly didn't understand it. But the voting public, especially young people, did understand. And they responded to Clinton and his new method of seeking America's vote.

Clinton's gambit on the Arsenio Hall Show was a significant paradigm shift in the business of winning the presidency. It changed everything. By 1996, presidential candidates all expected to give an interview on MTV; they went on late-night television and laughed. Al Gore and George W. Bush both spent an hour with Oprah Winfrey in 2000. In 2004, John Edwards announced his candidacy for the presidency on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, a show that is a parody of a political news program.

Much of this info-tainment politicking was devoted to introducing the candidate as a real person. They poked fun at themselves, told us their childhood dreams, and disclosed the contents of their grade-school report cards. On one memorable occasion we learned whether the candidate wore boxers or briefs. By the 2000 election, appearances on late-light television and daytime programs like Regis and Kelly and Oprah went from being wildly outrageous to being de rigeur.

And now things have come full circle: this weekend Barack Obama is campaigning with Oprah Winfrey. Oprah, who once interviewed the candidates and presented them to the nation as real people, has now endorsed a candidate. Her considerable social power has now been leashed to help Obama's campaign in the early contest states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.

It would seem that the Oprah/Obama show is a success. In South Carolina, Obama was originally booked to appear with Oprah in a venue that accommodated 18,000 people. But demand for tickets was so great that Obama's folks found a new venue ------- one that would seat 30,000. Obama, campaigning as a new Democrat, is also changing the ways that candidates campaign.

Whether or not Obama wins the nomination, I suspect that we'll look back on this weekend and realize that he changed the ways that campaigns court voters.


sister AE said...

Hi, Stacy. Did you mean to post this for this weeks Sunday Scribblings? The link there took me to a November post instead...

Granny Smith said...

This is a thoughtful and scholarly essay. It makes lots of us Sunday scribblers look frivolous. I find it a pleasing change and will keep it in mind as I comtemplate the candidates. Thank you.