It is a truism to say that the media is influential in politics. But there is no doubting that its power to mesmerize and acclimatize contributed to Obama’s election. Having focused yesterday on the way in which Obama both innately and deliberately sought to build bridges across community divides and with historical landmarks (as described in David Remnick’s remarkable book The Bridge), I want to pick up on how he was able to surf the media’s wave all the way into Pennsylvania Avenue.

I certainly wasn’t alone in saying these sorts of things, but as an armchair pundit, I had quite a lot of fun several years ago:

It is interesting looking back at these with the benefit of hindsight (especially Jonathan Freedland’s article) – for Obama’s election now seems so inevitable. But if it hadn’t been for the media love affair with him, things may well have turned out very differently.

Participating in a Narrative

This was certainly how McCain’s campaign felt about things. Having been a media darling in his campaign against Bush in 2000, John McCain couldn’t get a look in. Here is one of his team:

Mark Salter claimed that the press was enamored of Obama because of an urge to participate in the historic narrative of the rise of an African-American President; as a result, he said, it forgave or ignored his every fault and exaggerated McCain’s. Salter was especially insistent on telling reporters about McCain’s right-mindedness on race. He reminded reporters about how McCain had campaigned in Memphis in a driving rain to address a black audience. The message was: Even if I am not your candidate, if I win, I will be your President. Outside the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King was slain in 1968, McCain told voters that he had made a mistake twenty-five years earlier when he voted against making King’s birthday a national holiday.

“We went to great lengths to avoid pushing the rumors about Obama or trying to scare people, but McCain didn’t get an ounce of f***ing credit for it,” Salter said. “The press was smitten with a candidate and was determined to see him win. Where were the investigative pieces? We must have had fifty. Where was the press on Obama or Axelrod? There was nothing! My personal view is that reporters had to rationalize a dislike for McCain that they hadn’t had before. They had to conjure it.” (p545)

Going to the Movies

When Obama was still considering whether or not to run (after all, he’d only been a US Senator for a very short time), some of his close advisers saw a movie. Its idealism chimed with theirs and spurred them to go for it:

Around Thanksgiving of 2006, John Rogers and others in Obama’s circle went to see ‘Bobby’, a film written and directed by Emilio Estevez. The film was set in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, where Robert Kennedyand many of his supporterswere staying at the time of the 1968 California Democratic primary. These were what turned out to be the last hours of Kennedy’s life. What moved Rogers and his friends was not the bloody climax of the film, but, rather, the way that the film’s many ordinary characters – a retired doorman, a soldier, a beautician, a black kitchen worker, two Mexican busboys, the campaign donors, and the long-haired volunteers – were swept up in the promise of Kennedy’s campaign, the way that they represented a multi-ethnic coalition. The film suggested, once more, R.F.K.’s campaign in 1968 as a model of idealism. In the wake of emotional events like the Africa trip and his meetings with crowds of people during his cross-country book tour, Obama and his circle were arriving at the conclusion that he could run and, if things broke the right way, win the Presidency. (p463-4)

Be that as it may, it wasn’t Obama’s team that needed perceptions changed, but the wider public. And TV shows, in particular, had made a significant impact…

Jimmy Smits (aka Matt Santos) and Barack Obama

Rolling out the Red Carpet

More and more, a black President was an ordinary sight – on the screen at least. Morgan Freeman, as President Tom Beck, prepared the world for an all-destroying comet in the 1998 science fiction film ‘Deep Impact’; in the television series ’24’, President David Palmer, played by Dennis Haysbert, fends off a nuclear attack – and after he is killed by a sniper his brother becomes President. In Hollywood’s imaginings, a black President has become an incidental plot point, a casting choice. (p456)

But the real game-changer was actually not black at all – but Latino. Matt Santos on The West Wing. We pick up the narrative here after Obama has first hit national consciousness as a young Senator-elect plucked from relative obscurity to give the introductory speech for John Kerry at the Democrats’ 2004 Convention:

But even if … Obama’s decision to sign a three-book deal was a hasty move to capitalize on his political celebrity and provide a tool for the next Presidential campaign, that celebrity was not something that he could control. Not long after the Convention speech, Eli Attie, one of the writers and producers for NBC’s hit television series “The West Wing,” was starting to flesh out a character to succeed President Josiah (Jed) Bartlet, the wry” and avuncular head of state played by Martin Sheen. Although the series, the creation of Aaron Sorkin, first went on the air during the Clinton years, many Democrats watched it during the Bush Presidency as a kind of alternative-reality show. Bartlet, a Nobel Prize-winning economist and a devout Catholic with liberal values, was, for that audience, everything that Bush was not: mature, curious, assured, skeptical, and confident of his own intelligence.

Attie wanted the new character to be no less a liberal ideal, but this time he wanted someone of the “post-Oprah” generation, as he put it, someone black or Hispanic, but not an older figure closely tied to the rhetoric of the civil-rights movement and identity politics. Attie had serious political experience. He had written speeches for the former New York mayor David Dinkins, and had been an aide to Richard Gephardt in Congress, and to Bill Clinton in the White House; he was Al Gore’s chief speechwriter through the 2000 Presidential campaign. When he watched Obama, he thought he saw the model for his character, Matt Santos: a young urban progressive with dignified bearing, a “bring-the-electorate-along-slowly candidate” who was neither white nor focused on race. ‘Faced with the task of fleshing out a fictional first-ever and actually viable Latino candidate for President, I had no precedent, no way to research a real-life version,’ he said.

Attie called David Axelrod, whom he had known from Democratic political campaigns, and asked him dozens of questions about Obama’s history and psychology. Axelrod talked with Attie about the change in Obama’s life after the Convention speech, the crowds that surrounded him everywhere he went, the incredible expectations people had for him even before he went to Washington. Santos, like Obama, wasn’t an orthodox liberal, of the Edward Kennedy mold; instead, Attie came to see Santos the way Axelrod saw Obama an~t the way Obama saw himself:–as both a progressive and a cautious coalition-builder.

Those early conversations with David turned out to play a huge role “in my shaping of the character,” Attie said. “One of the main things was Obama’s attitude about race, his almost militant refusal to be defined by it, which became the basis for an episode I wrote called ‘Opposition Research,’ in which Santos said he didn’t want to run as the ‘brown candidate,’ even though that’s where all his support and fund-raising potential were. Also, there was Obama’s rock-star charisma, the way people were drawn to him and were pulling the lever for him even though they didn’t exactly think he’d win.”

In the final two seasons of The West Wing, which aired in 2005 and 2006, Matt Santos, played by Jimmy Smits, runs for President against a Republican from California named Arnold Vinick, played by Alan Alda. Press-friendly, winningly acerbic, and unusually independent, Vinick is suspicious of the religious right and positions himself to the left of his Party. on a variety of issues. At least in his ideological flexibility, and outspokenness, Vinick resembled John McCain–particularly the self-fashioned maverick who ran in 2000 against George W. Bush for the Republican nomination.

A couple of years later, those seasons of The West Wing proved so eerily prescient that David Axelrod sent Attie an e-mail from the campaign trail reading, ‘We’re living your scripts!’ And yet, while he was making those shows, Attie thought there was ‘no way’ that the real character, Barack Obama, could go much farther than the Senate. ‘I just didn’t think he could be the President of the United States in my lifetime, given the color of his skin,’ he said. (p422-423)

If ever an argument for keeping a close eye on the subliminal messages and agendas behind popular culture was needed, this is surely it. And it’s not just the left – the right plays the same games where and when they can. For as Postman pointed out in Amusing Ourselves to Death, Huxley was more on the money than Orwell as far as the power of entertainment to influence and control was concerned.

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This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Johnny Laird

    Fascintating insights here, Mark.

    Thanks for two excellent posts…


    1. quaesitor

      thanks Johnny – see you at the next social media jolly!

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