Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Gerald Ford, Saturday Night Live, and the Development of the Entertainer in Chief

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Gerald Ford, Saturday Night Live, and the Development of the Entertainer in Chief

Article excerpt

On December 8, 2014, President Barack Obama appeared as a guest on one of the final episodes of the Colbert Report (Mercia 2014). In a seemingly surprise move, the president interrupted the host Stephen Colbert's political satire segment, "The Word." "Well, Stephen," Obama said amidst cheers from the audience, "you have been taking a lot of shots at my job, so I've decided to take a shot at yours." As the commander in chief then literally replaced Colbert as the star of the show, he asked, "How hard can this be?" The subsequent segment, which Obama renamed "The Decree" to make it more "presidential," had television and Internet audiences laughing along with the country's entertainer in chief. Obama then used the comedy show to promote a range of administration policies, including immigration, health care, and the Keystone pipeline.

The Colbert Report performance was part of Obama's strategy of using entertainment--late-night comedy sketches, Internet platforms like Buzzfeed, and even reality television shows like Bear Grylls's--not only to win elections, but also to govern. According to Dan Pfeiffer, Obama's senior adviser, appearances that blend jokes with policy promotion, like when the president appeared with Zack Galifianakis on the Internet comedy show Between Two Ferns, constitute an "extension of the code we have been trying to crack for seven years now," namely how to communicate more effectively with younger Americans (Alma 2014). On the campaign trail, and in office, Obama has appealed to television and Internet audiences as media consumers and fans first, voters and citizens second. In doing so, he has made entertainment a defining part of his presidency.

The strategic use of entertainment did not start with Obama, of course. As a former actor, Ronald Reagan built his career on his keen understanding of the connection between politics and show business and frequently remarked how his acting skills were essential for succeeding as president (Cannon 1991). In 1992, presidential candidate Bill Clinton memorably donned sunglasses and belted out a saxophone solo on the Arsenio Hall Show. Since this performance, political commentators and media scholars have frequently noted the opportunities and obstacles late-night comedy television presents presidents to become an entertainer in chief (Abel and Barthel 2013; Marx, Sienkiewicz, and Becker 2013; Gray, Jones, and Thomson 2009). But the "cool" Clinton and the Great Communicator's use of entertainment to achieve political ends did not launch a new presidential tradition. Rather, both reflected how changes in popular culture together with technological innovations helped to transform the presidential role and public perceptions of the highest political office.

Political historians frequently dismiss the role of entertainment in American politics, seeing the rise of the modern entertainer in chief as a development caused simply by the advent of television. Implicitly advancing ideas of "technological determinism"--the assumption that new technology had preconfigured features to impact society in a particular way--this story often laments the product of our modern celebrity political culture while overlooking the longer tradition of and debate over showmanship in presidential politics (Postman 1985). (1) During the antebellum period, newspaper editors served as prominent party leaders and worked with other partisans to craft presidential imagery to sell candidates while using parades and picnics to encourage voter turnout (Heale 1982). These spectacles continued in the post--Civil War era, sustaining their popularity by offering voters "martial excitement and welcome diversion" (McGerr 1986, 29). But, over the twentieth century, new technologies--radio, motion pictures, and television--and the rise of trained image-making industries--advertising, public relations, and Hollywood--gradually transformed electoral campaigns and party politics (Schroeder 2004; Brownell 2014; Greenberg 2016). …

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