12 February 2016

Laughing their way to the White House


Did 2015 mark a new era when paths to the White House began to detour wildly through the world of light entertainment?

The past twelve months have seen all the leading presidential candidates muddle their way through at least one laboured sketch on US prime time. Hillary Clinton appeared on Saturday Night Live, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, and others, each time spoofing the established wisdom that insists she has the personality of hardened bedrock. Donald Trump followed the same route, playing his own mirror image in a Fallon sketch and then hosting SNL. Even the usually dour Bernie Sanders has edged his way around a late night desk, appearing on Stephen Colbert’s Late Show where he was subjected to his old reggae recording of Woody Guthrie’s leftist anthem ‘This Land is Your Land’. When he appeared on Ellen DeGeneres’s show he also shuffled his hips to the more anarcho-disco lyric ‘Burn baby burn’. Even if it wasn’t a dance, it was close to a dance and, besides, he doesn’t need to put in the effort. Not when he has Saturday Night Live to help him. Last week he appeared in a Titanic-themed sketch on the show and had Larry David play him in an episode of ‘Bern Your Enthusiasm‘ which is now cult viewing on Youtube.

Politics has always been about winning the hearts and minds of the people, but the shift to winning their hearts first suggests that the demands we make of our politicians might have changed. This shift is certainly more significant than either Bill Clinton playing saxophone on Arsinio Hall’s show in 1992 or Richard Nixon torturing an innocent piano on Jack Paar’s The Tonight Show in 1963. This is more of an emotional rapprochement between the leaders and the people; a change in the way we do business with those strange creatures we elect to represent us.

Nobody demonstrates that better than Hillary Clinton whose previous run for the Democratic nomination was halted by the popular appeal of  a man who was in every respect her opposite. To prove his credentials as the most television-friendly president, Barak Obama would later become the first sitting president to visit late night TV, appearing on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in July last year. The only surprise is that Obama still hasn’t appeared on Bill Maher’s Real Time; a peculiar oversight given that Maher donated $1 million to the Obama super PAC, Priorities USA Action, in 2012. Maher recently launched a White House petition to encourage the President to appear but, even if he does, Obama’s reluctance might stem from the scalding nature of Maher’s brand of late night chat. Politically overcharged talk shows are a rarity in an age when politicians are drawn to soft interviews. From the moment Obama entered the race, we saw a man who eschewed the stilted rhetoric of the political class. He knew how to laugh, smile, shake a hand and convey warmth. Channelling the tones of pastors in the evangelical movement, his orations were meant to be calm and uplifting. Meanwhile, Hillary autocued her way to failure.

Hillary’s problem has always been a problem unique to Hillary. Having served two terms as America’s First Lady, then as a senator and Secretary of State, she has been singularly defined by her time in office. Many predicted that she would never escape the shadow of being First Lady yet she transformed herself into ‘Secretary Clinton’. Where she struggled was in subsequently learning to become ‘Ordinary Hillary’ fighting for votes. As Kate McKinnon screamed when playing Clinton on SNL: ‘Why won’t the people just let me lead? Just give me the hammer and the nails and let me fix it all!’

That slightly manic urgency is sometimes evident when Clinton takes to the campaign trail. Mentally she’s already on Pennsylvania Avenue leaving her body to lecture us with a humourless chill. Speaking recently (admittedly on a cold day) in Columbia about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, Clinton followed a script and the result was perfunctory and tight. She punched the air, her voice forcing key words as if hissed by a stressed automaton with frozen hydraulic fluid. It was very different to her ad-libbed performances that have worked quite well.

That new ‘TV Hillary’ has been self deprecating and doing her utmost to project the impression that she really cares so very little about the election, sometimes laughing with her mouth so wide open you can even see the scars from the years she spent biting her cheek. Without the podium, the autocue, the written speech, she finds something within her that is more emotive and humble. The less she looks like she’s seeking the nomination, the greater her chances of winning the nomination, which is why her appearance on the comedy shows is a telling move.

For all the candidates, the ability to project humour rather than gravitas has defined their campaigns. Candidates who have refused to engage with the audience on an emotional level (Bush and Fiorina, especially) have struggled. Marco Rubio notably faded once Chris Christie pointed out the Senator’s staged performances. Meanwhile, oblivious to his own weakness, Ted Cruz reflected recently that Republicans should tell more jokes. The uptight senator from Texas was right. That he found any traction in the polls is perhaps testament to the power of prepared spontaneity and a lot of casual dress.

Donald Trump, meanwhile, never dresses casually. He just pulls off his tie and squeezes half-a-pound of blonde fuzz into a bright red baseball cap. The white shirt and blue suit are habitual; the downgrade perfunctory. It also shows how little effort a candidate needs to spend if they can relax an audience. Trump is certainly gifted at playing to the humour of the blue collar. His campaign speeches consist of jokes, jibes, anecdotes, and vulgar expressions of the commonplace. ‘Poor Jeb,’ he says at every meeting, reducing the former favourite to a stock comedy character. This knack might well carry him to the White House because Trump exudes personality with the confidence that comes from a life in the media spotlight. If you watch him night after night, you will notice that his campaign speeches rarely change. He talks almost no politics, preferring the meta-politics of the campaign. He turns his opponents, the media, and even pollsters into soft targets for his often scalding humour. Audience members throw jokes his way and he takes them on with ad-libbed comebacks. The result is a stand-up routine more suited to network TV or a bar and grill on a Saturdaynight.

In New Hampshire recently, a female member of the audience fainted as Trump took to the stage. There is a little-noted hysteria surrounding Trump that’s hard to understand. What is understandable is the kindness he relays back to his audience. The demagogue crying about strong borders and ‘Chi-nah’ stopped to demand that the women receive help. ‘We love you,’ he shouted as she was carried out. He probably meant it about as much as any politician would mean it yet it’s hard to deny that to the audience the love sounded genuine. That is the emotional dimension to Trump so misunderstood by those that wish to reduce his appeal to some clamour for cruel politics.

Yet humour is not the answer to all campaign problems. Kudos to Chris Christie for the self-confidence to perform ‘The Evolution of Dad Dancing’ on Jimmy Fallon’s show, complete with high beltline emphasising the comic bounce of his rotund physique, but no amount of late-night gyrating distracts from a candidate who suggested in debate that he’d start World War 3 in order to prove his resolve. And that’s the thing to remember about this ‘make-em-laugh’ strategy: nothing compensates for stupidity.

Humour does not necessarily mark the decline of American politics. It might even offers it some salvation. For decades, politicians disengaged from the people. They are only now finding a way to reconnect through a comedic popularism. The image of the dour politician has rarely worked in America and even Bernie Sanders, gruffest of the candidates, is now the lovable curmudgeon, helped by the inspired casting of Larry David. The image of the perpetually-pained cynic is a powerful tonic against the hairpieces and mannequins crowding Capitol Hill.

When Clinton played the bartender ‘Val’ on SNL, she led with ‘I’m just an ordinary citizen who believes the Keystone Pipeline will destroy our environment’. Was that comedy or politics? Does it even matter so long as political messages are getting through? By learning a type of humility, politicians might also be removing themselves from their elevated roosts. We can hope it lasts longer than the election and that politicians might start to answer questions, debate problems, and remember that none of them ever won a vote with the dead weights of polish, spin, and posture. But make us laugh once in a while and they might yet make believers of us all.

David Waywell writes and cartoons at The Spine.