Nixon’s showbiz legacy

By Kathryn Cramer Brownell
August 8, 2014

nixon in limo

The 40th anniversary of President Richard M. Nixon’s resignation comes just as politicians of both parties increasingly say the words “President Barack Obama” and “impeachment” in the same sentence. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives, which has filed a lawsuit against the president, has also been quick to draw comparisons between the Nixon administration’s abuses of executive power and Obama’s use of executive orders.

Yet the critiques of Obama, which The Economist and CNN have dubbed “political theater,” recall another aspect of Nixon’s lasting legacy: the rise of an entertainment-driven politics that now defines the modern media landscape and the U.S. presidency.

nixon-&-elvis -- bestIt was Nixon who embraced “showbiz politics” in his efforts to salvage his political career, expand the electorate and rebuild the Republican Party. By capitalizing on a political tradition rooted in California politics and the Hollywood studio system, Nixon’s electoral successes convinced politicians across the ideological spectrum to deploy entertainment strategies from the Nixon media playbook.

Nixon had linked his electoral failures – in particular, the 1960 presidential defeat to John F. Kennedy to his loss in the 1962 gubernatorial election in his home state of California — to the bias of the media, which he felt had favored his opponents in campaign coverage.

Over the next six years, Nixon set about resurrecting his career through a new style of politics, one that Kennedy had controversially applied in 1960 and that former actors George Murphy and Ronald Reagan used to assert their political authority on the national scene in 1964 and 1966, respectively.

Nixon embraced Hollywood production and publicity strategies, adopting a style of media-driven politics that had reshaped California’s political landscape since the 1930s. He hired a team of media experts — including experienced advertising executives, professional consultants and television producers — to direct his campaign as they would a Hollywood movie. The goal: Present Nixon as a media celebrity who could connect with the television generation.

On Sept. 16, 1968, for example, Nixon made a guest appearance on the hit TV comedy program Laugh-In. He uttered the show’s celebrated catch phrase, “Sock it to me!” Though many older viewers were shocked, his appearance exemplified Nixon’s new media effort — the “hit and run” sales strategy. Nixon campaign adviser and future Fox News chief Roger Ailes worked with Laugh-In writer and producer Paul Keyes to make the candidate a constant part of the media consciousness, while using entertainment to circumvent the press and communicate directly to television viewers.

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Nixon’s successful presidential run in 1968 convinced him — as well as political hopefuls across the country, who read about his media strategy in Joe McGinniss’ The Selling of the President — that the difference between Nixon the loser and Nixon the winner hinged on media innovation and the embrace of “showbiz politics.” Winning elections was now about creating the right persona. Consultants and ad men packaged every political appearance as a crafted performance, which they then sold to the public, striving to create an emotional connection between the star candidate and his fans.

This practice has continued to shape political life. Presidential hopefuls now regularly appear on entertainment programs to appeal to citizens as media consumers first, voters second.  Over the past 40 years, presidential performances, especially those by the actor-turned-president Reagan and Bill Clinton (who starred in a short film Final Days, presented at a White House Correspondents’ Association dinner), have further injected principles of entertainment into U.S. politics.

So it is not too surprising to see them adopted by Obama.  Using late night and Internet comedy programs, social media and celebrity performances on the campaign trail and in the Oval Office, the president has further infused this Nixon legacy into presidential politics.

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Obama reached out to voters during his presidential campaigns by appearing on The View, sitting down for interviews with Oprah Winfrey and Jon Stewart, and even slow jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon. With these appearances, Obama became an entertainer to promote his policies, defend his actions (as he did talking about Libya on The Daily Show) and expand the reach of his message of “hope” and “change” to television and Internet audiences.

Throughout the 2012 campaign, celebrities including Eva Longoria, Kal Penn and Scarlett Johansson worked to bring Latino and younger voters into the Democratic coalition, another strategy reminiscent of Nixon’s “Celebrities for Nixon Committee,” which aimed to use entertainment and celebrity surrogates to unite a new Republican political coalition across the Sunbelt during the 1970s.

nixon_with_davis -- right sizeNixon worked with Sammy Davis Jr. to reach out to African-Americans, Jackie Gleason to appeal to blue-collar and suburban voters, and actress Pam Powell to build a “Youth for Nixon” movement. The president and his top advisers, including Henry Kissinger, traveled to celebrity recruitment parties in Hollywood to discuss topics including Russia, China and the economy so that Nixon supporters could serve as surrogates to promote not just Nixon’s reelection but his administration’s policies.

Like Nixon, Obama’s embrace of entertainment has gone beyond the campaign trail. He has used late night comedy shows and celebrity supporters to advance legislation and unite a new political coalition. The president traded jokes with Zach Galifianakis on his popular Internet comedy show Between Two Ferns to sell the Affordable Care Act to young Americans, whose enrollment is key to the program’s success.

One major irony of the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation is that, though conservatives may want to use the legacy of the Watergate scandal to attack Obama, Obama’s use of Nixon’s innovative media strategy has generated enough support and loyalty, especially among younger voters, to withstand such criticism.


PHOTO (TOP): President Richard Nixon’s motorcade is swarmed by people during a campaign event, October 23, 1972. REUTERS/National Archives

PHOTO (INSERT1): President Richard Nixon shaking hands with Elvis Presley at the White House in Washington, December 21, 1970. REUTERS/Courtesy of National Archives

VIDEO (INSERT 2): Richard M. Nixon on Laugh-In. September 16, 1968

VIDEO (INSERT 3): President Barack Obama and Jimmy Fallon. April 24, 2012.

PHOTO (INSERT 4): Sammy Davis Jr. and President Richard Nixon in the Yellow Oval Room of the White House in Washington. March 4, 1973. Courtesy of White House Photo Office.



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