By Will Howell–Comedy and Campaigning, 1931 & 2008
On May 7, 2008, Republican presidential candidate John McCain made his thirteenth appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. McCain had previously run for president (in 2000), but his appearances were unrelated to his previous candidacy: rather, McCain’s affinity for The Daily Show (and vice versa) grew from McCain’s advocacy for campaign finance reform. As a strong supporter of campaign finance reform, Jon Stewart was more than willing to provide Senator McCain a venue to inform the public about his work.
McCain’s many appearances–and particularly this appearance amidst the escalating presidential election—call to mind a historical parallel from October, 1931. President Herbert Hoover, up for reelection one year later, presided over a deepening economic depression. The conservative president turned to the private sector to revive the economy (and, consequently, his chances for reelection) by creating POUR: the President’s Organization on Unemployment Relief.
Perhaps Hoover didn’t recognize the tragic irony of calling this organization POUR, but he knew how to boost its success. He asked popular comedian Will Rogers to appear on the radio with him to promote the program.
Roger’s brief remarks—dubbed “Bacon and Beans and Limousines”—are found below. John McCain’s interview on The Daily Show is available here.
I don’t want to belabor the content of either broadcast, but rather to raise some points of comparison.
In both situations, the comedians (to use Peter M. Robinson’s excellent phrasing) “dominated the middle ground between the people and the president” (or presidential candidate, in the case of McCain). In his book, Robinson traces how this domination solidified over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, but it’s always been there. From Finley Peter Dunne’s Mr. Dooley columns to Will Roger’s Letters of a Self-Made Diplomat to His President, from Chevy Chase’s Gerald Ford impression to Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin, comedians have helped us evaluate our presidents—and given us standards by which we might judge presidential candidates.
In 1931, the politician asked the comedian to help him advocate for a policy; in 2008, the comedian invited the politician. While acknowledging the constant “mediator” role comedians play, it’s also important to acknowledge that the tables have turned somewhat. Fey’s impression has been cited by several scholars and many cultural critics as a contributing factor to Sarah Palin’s public unraveling, and appearing on The Daily Show was a rite of passage for nearly all of the Republican and Democratic candidates who sought to succeed George W. Bush in the 2008 presidential campaign. Right or wrong, American citizens seem to have ceded a great deal of vetting power to comedians.
In 1931, all radio stations carried the politician and comedian’s address; in 2008, the comedian and the politician addressed only a segment of the population who paid to see them. There are three points I wish to make here. First, changing technologies now allow us to see the comedian sitting next to the president. I’d argue that this is a stronger validation of the comedian’s political contribution than hearing his/her voice in tandem with the president/presidential candidate. That being said, it doesn’t carry as much weight if fewer people see it. Perhaps McCain said something insightful, or important for citizens to know as they evaluated his candidacy, when he appeared on The Daily Show…but unless citizens seek it out, its civic contribution is diminished. I am one of those who ’don’t have cable, meaning I’d need to go online to watch the interview; I’d need to make an affirmative decision, and then take steps, to watch it. This leads to a final point: comedians increasingly play to specific audiences. Will Rogers played to everybody, as did Bob Hope, Burns and Allen, Jack Benny, and the other radio comedy greats. This obviously relates to the broadcast technology they used, but the outcome is what’s important. They did political material alongside jokes about their pets, and their stupid neighbors. Because cable enables narrowcast audiences, comedians in that medium can rule out certain types of material. Coupled with broadcast networks’ concerns about political comedy emerging from the Vietnam War era, this has contributed to a walling-off of political comedy.
Some food for thought while you listen/watch and compare these two broadcasts. There are obviously other points of comparison, and I invite you to both engage my points and note what comparisons you see in your comments.