William Katz: Tina Fey, Kingmaker

Occasional contributor Bill Katz holds down the fort at Urgent Agenda This morning he considers the intersection of show business and politics in the recent election:

We do it after every election. We try to gauge the impact that Hollywood, and celebrity endorsements, had on the outcome. We usually conclude that Hollywood’s impact was minimal, and that voters weren’t swayed by the word of a movie star with an overgrown ego and an undergrown talent.

This year, though, was different. This year Hollywood, or show business, or whatever you call it, had a greater impact on the presidential race than ever before. The reasons are disturbing, and they’re a warning for the future. There were two major moments that defined a break with past traditions.

The most decisive moment in Hollywood’s attempt to influence the election was Oprah Winfrey’s introduction of Barack Obama on her daytime television show. This simply had never happened before. Oh yes, potential presidents had appeared on TV. Even Richard Nixon did a cameo for “Laugh-In” before the 1968 election. But Oprah not only introduced Obama, she vouched for him, she gave him what Joan Crawford once called “the big okay,” her seal of approval. Almost instantly, Winfrey transformed Obama from an ambitious young politician into a cultural star. He suddenly rocketed beyond politics. He became larger than all that. And there he remained, all through the campaign and up to election day, a man who was as much culture as candidate.

Other daytime entertainers had dabbled in politics. In the 1950s the Oprah Winfrey power belonged to a man named Arthur Godfrey. So popular and familiar was Godfrey that he was one of two people selected to make emergency broadcasts to the nation in the event of a nuclear attack. (The other was Edward R. Murrow.) Everyone knew Godfrey’s voice. It was woven in the fabric of the time. But Godfrey never endorsed a candidate or tried to promote one. He promoted national defense, especially the Strategic Air Command, and made occasional comments about other issues. But candidates were never in the script. Winfrey broke that mold.

Winfrey took some hits because of her action, losing a chunk of her audience in the process. There was a feeling, undoubtedly accurate, that race played a role in her boosterism. Obama was the first candidate she’d ever promoted, and he, like she, is African-American. Clearly, some members of he audience were offended. But the setback in ratings was minor compared to what Oprah Winfrey had done for Barack Obama.

The second major moment was Tina Fey’s impersonation of Sarah Palin on “Saturday Night live,” without question the most watched and talked-about political impression ever. In the early 1970s there was an impressionist named David Frye, who became popular doing Richard Nixon, Nelson Rockefeller, Lyndon Johnson, and, remarkably, William F. Buckley Jr. Frye sold a lot of records, and appeared on The Tonight Show. Earlier, Vaughn Meader made a name for himself, and some cash, by doing a dead-on
impersonation of President John F. Kennedy. But Kennedy’s murder essentially ended Meader’s career.

Both Frye and Meader were entertainers. There was little political content to their impersonations, and neither claimed to have political impact. Most of their impersonations were developed after elections. Meader, for example, impersonated President Kennedy, not candidate Kennedy. Frye did President, not candidate Nixon. But Tina Fey became a kind of commentator, impersonating someone little known to us in the months before an election, and shaping our perception of Sarah Palin.

A word about impersonations, passed on to me many years ago by one of the classic impressionists, Will Jordan: Impressionists don’t really impersonate the character. They identify certain traits of that character, then amplify them, defining those traits in the public mind. Sometimes they even manufacture lines to be used in their impression. Bette Davis never said “Peter, Peter, Peter,” in a motion picture, yet an impressionist put those words in her mouth, and she became known for them. The first impressionist to “nail” the character creates the image of that person, especially for impressionists who follow. Most performers who “impersonated” television personality Ed Sullivan really weren’t doing Sullivan. They were doing Will Jordan, the first person to get Sullivan right. Jordan had identified the traits that made an impression of Sullivan work.

Tina Fey never “did” Sarah Palin. She took certain traits of Palin’s, even traits Palin was simply assumed to have, then exaggerated them. Because Palin wasn’t that well known, Fey had close to a blank slate, a rare advantage in the world of impressionists. And because her impression was entertaining and funny, it drew us in. But the impression ridiculed Palin, and went far to define her in the public mind as someone not quite up to the job, a political airhead. It wasn’t the only factor, of course, but it played an important role in sending Palin from her starring role at the Republican convention, crashing down to her later image as someone grasping for respect.

Oprah Winfrey, Tina Fey. No, they didn’t win the election for Barack Obama, but their roles were unique, unlike any others in the intersection between show business and politics. And they had an impact.

Half a century ago, President Dwight D. Eisenhower predicted that, if the influence of television got any greater, America would someday elect a movie actor as president. When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, that line was conveniently recalled by liberal journalists. But Reagan had been a two-term governor of California and was a master communicator. He overcame the “movie-actor thing” by speaking over the heads of the media and directly to the American people.

The political leanings of show business and the media generally are not going to change anytime soon. If conservatives are to be successful, they must learn to do what Reagan did – speak over the heads of performers, talk-show hosts, impersonators and even reporters. They did not do so in this election, allowing Oprah Winfrey and Tina Fey, among others, to have an impact far beyond what it should have been.

Bill’s mention of Arthur Godfrey reminds me that Budd Schulberg and Elia Kazan worried over the role of television in politics in the 1957 film “A Face in the Crowd.” The film’s character of Lonesome Rhodes was inspired by Will Rogers, but was also based in part on Godfrey.

I posted a clip from the film here. In the scene, Rhodes gives the dauntingly square Senator Worthington Fuller a lesson in how to transform himself into a presidential candidate through the medium of television. Rhodes is introduced by his sponsor General Haynesworth, manufacturer of the worthless Vitajex pick-me-up tablets. General Haynesworth advises Fuller that he needs a slogan like “Time for a change,” “The mess in Washington” or “More bang for a buck.” Show business powers have changed over the years, but the film remains timely.

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