(Kathryn Cramer Brownell, assistant professor of history at Purdue University, is author of “Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life,” which explores the use of Hollywood styles, structures and personalities in U.S. politics over the 20th century. The opinions expressed here are her own.)
By Kathryn Cramer Brownell
Oct 23 (Reuters) - If Donald Trump’s candidacy for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination reveals anything about the American electorate, it is that voters want live, unpredictable entertainment. Though he off-handedly insults women and immigrants, the former host of “Celebrity Apprentice” has captured the GOP center stage, largely by turning the primary process into a high-rated reality show. He slams opponents and then tries to make nice. You never know what will happen next.
On Thursday, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made her own appearance on a live, unpredictable television show. A hearing of the select House committee investigating Benghazi became another episode of the 2016 presidential campaign, restaged as a reality-television program.
Clinton’s 11-hour testimony allowed her to tap into the nation’s desire for reality TV. It gave her the opportunity to star as the heroine of a captivating political drama and, like her recent appearance on “Saturday Night Live,” shows how she has honed skills to play the role of entertainer-in-chief.
During the marathon testimony, Clinton spoke not just to the committee but to millions of television viewers. The former secretary of state emotionally recounted details of the Benghazi terrorist attack: a smoke-filled safe room in which Foreign Service officer Sean Smith died; the painful search for the U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, and the heroic efforts of the CIA and diplomatic security forces.
The event was live-tweeted after weeks of anticipation and build-up - just like any television season premiere. Unlike most other reality shows, which are filmed weeks before broadcast, this House hearing had journalists wondering where it was going. “Heading for a big ending?” asked one CNN headline.
As the leading character, Clinton had all eyes locked on her performance before the committee. Representative Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking minority member, and Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) engaged in long, heated exchanges, with both professing the desire for the “truth and nothing but the truth.”
This partisan battle became an opportunity for Clinton to display her leadership skills. As her Republican congressional opponents got into screaming matches, she sat back, smiled and shook her head at the divisiveness and pettiness of Congress.
In a campaign cycle where virtually all the candidates appear on late-night television programs in search of political legitimacy, Clinton has elevated the stakes in trying out for the role of entertainer-in-chief - perhaps even outperforming her leading opponent, a real reality-TV celebrity, in the process.
Media innovation has become central to political success. Over the 20th century, the politicians who succeeded took advantage of new platforms - radio, broadcast television and social media - to communicate to voters. As they gradually fused entertainment with presidential politics; they breached the barrier between public and private.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt entered the homes of all American radio listeners to share his thoughts as he crafted New Deal policies. He promoted his program and candidacy with entertaining radio shorts - boldly recruiting stars such stars as Humphrey Bogart to campaign for him in the 1944 election.
When retired General Dwight D. Eisenhower sought to take back the White House for the Republican Party in 1952, he worked with actor Robert Montgomery and studio executive Jack Warner to “pick up where FDR left off in the establishment of contact with the public through mass communications media.”
Working with the new medium of television, Eisenhower appealed to the American public as media consumers first, and voters second. His team sold the general’s personality to voters - not his party identity. This was how Eisenhower, political scientist Stanley Kelley Jr. explained in 1956, got the electorate to turn out to vote and cross party lines.
President John F. Kennedy took this process a step further. Beyond television, he used radio announcements, press releases and even Frank Sinatra song lyrics to construct a Hollywood dream machine to turn voters into “Jack Kennedy fans.”
Even President Richard M. Nixon turned to showbiz politics to turn himself into a celebrity. In the 1968 presidential campaign, Nixon deployed what he had previously condemned as cheap publicity in 1960 to win votes - including an appearance on hit television show “Laugh In.”
What all these presidents had in common is that they broke new ground in American political communication. They took risks by using entertainment to connect emotionally with voters. This appeal to the heart, not the head, as Nixon observed, could make the difference between winning and losing.
Since Nixon, candidates have increasingly turned to entertainment to make their appeals. None more so than President Barack Obama. He has appeared on the “Colbert Report” and “The Daily Show,” slow-jammed his student-loan policies on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” sat down with Zach Galifianakis on “Between Two Ferns,” taken selfies on BuzzFeed and faced wilderness adventures with Bear Grylls. The list is long, and it shows his ability to smoothly inject entertainment into his presidential agenda and use it to build a winning political coalition.
So far, all 2016 presidential candidates have followed in Obama’s footsteps. They have appeared on “The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon” and “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” among others. But what is the next step?
If all candidates are “slow jamming the news” to exhibit their performance skills, the next president will need to do what Eisenhower, Kennedy and Nixon did. He or she will have to pick up where Obama has left off.
While 24 million viewers watched Republican candidates battle it out in a reality-television drama, the Democratic debate attracted only 15.9 viewers. Some might even have tuned in just to see if Vice President Joe Biden would make a surprise guest appearance and announce his candidacy at the last minute.
But the Democratic debate could not compare to the GOP’s in terms of entertainment value. Rather than sparking an upset in the polls, the Democrats’ leading candidate performed well and solidified her lead. Now that Biden has announced he will not enter the race, Clinton’s place as front-runner is further strengthened. The Democratic drama has faded away.
Republicans may have pushed forward on the Clinton investigation - or persecution, depending on your perspective - in an effort to remind the public of past Clinton scandals and to cast her as a self-absorbed or ineffective leader.
But in doing so, they created an opportunity for Clinton to star in reality entertainment. Though the House select committee might have been created by Republicans to undermine the Democratic front-runner, as House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) suggested, it might instead have launch a remarkable opportunity for media innovation. The live saga of Clinton’s 11-hour testimony allowed her to connect emotionally with many viewers by delivering a performance that was both presidential and dramatic.
But, reality television, as a genre, is defined by petty drama - not enlightened discussion. Trump’s debate performances drew high ratings, but have raised questions about whether he helped or hurt the Republican Party.
The Benghazi hearings may be a campaign victory for Clinton. If this reality television style continues, however, it generates concerns about the future of political discourse. Even if the search for TV ratings rather than rationality in campaign strategies can win votes, it may create a sensational political environment even more difficult for the next president to navigate. (Kathryn Cramer Brownell)