Of pols and pop culture

A fifth, and final, cardinal rule for presidential wannabes
By STEVEN STARK  |  February 28, 2007

SOUTHERN REVIVAL: The Allman Brothers led the cultural wave of Southern mania that Jimmy Carter rode to the White House.

The Tote Board’s preliminaries are almost over, meaning next week we begin to set the odds. During the past two weeks, we’ve listed four rules that shape presidential politics. This week, in the last of our three-part introduction, we set out the final important rule that candidates ignore at their peril:

Rule 5: Candidates who tie their campaigns to popular culture have a better chance of getting elected.
Presidential politics and pop culture are inseparable. In the modern age, the campaign is brought to us largely through television (the Internet plays a role, but despite extravagant claims to the contrary, it’s still a relatively minor one). As a result, campaigns have taken on the attributes of long-running series; just as a character on Grey’s Anatomy or Lost has to wear well for a long time on the small screen or face the consequences, so too it goes for candidates.

The two are suited to each other, with a history that long precedes the birth of TV. Beginning in the 19th century, politics took on a cultural role similar to that of sports. With its rallies, shop talk, fraternal bonding, and last but not least, voting in saloons, the American political system became further aligned with our culture.

Given this bond, candidates who want to wage strong campaigns must understand the media of their age. Critics may have decried the way Ronald Reagan was able to use television (in large part because of his prior experience in Hollywood), for instance, but they forget that Abraham Lincoln did much the same thing with his use of photography a century before. That technology was somewhat new in the 1850s and 1860s, yet Lincoln was photographed an extraordinary number of times, which in those days often meant sitting for long periods in a studio.

That was no accident: Lincoln was, after all, the only president to alter his appearance radically between his election and his first inauguration, which shows that he was as concerned about his image as any politician is today.

All this is to say, then, that candidates who can connect their campaigns to pop-culture trends have a much better chance of getting elected. In 1976, Jimmy Carter rode a cultural wave of Southern mania, as he tied his campaign to the rise of southern rock (the Allman Brothers and Marshall Tucker both gave concerts for Carter) and the appeal of movies such as Network and, with its glorification of outsiders, Nashville. “I am not a lawyer,” Carter was prone to say, aping a line from Nashville in hopes of drawing applause.

In 1988, Michael Dukakis benefited from a similar sway of cultural interest. At the time, Boston was home to the tech-based “Massachusetts miracle,” the wildly popular sitcom Cheers, and the Celtics, with star player Larry Bird. By emphasizing his Greek roots, Dukakis also attempted to ride the appeal of the immigrant saga, then being popularized in films such as Moonstruck (starring his cousin, Olympia, who introduced him at the Democratic Convention) and Coming to America.

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