Trump and the Rules of Celebrity Politics

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(Bloomberg) -- With a Twitter-addicted reality-show star in the White House, late-night comics leading the “resistance,” and Kanye West being Kanye West, celebrity and politics seem more weirdly entangled than ever. It’s enough to make anyone nostalgic for the days when musicians shut up and sang and athletes just played ball.

Except, as David Haven Blake will be the first to tell you, that’s not really the American tradition. Celebrity and politics have long been entwined, but new media change how that connection manifests itself. In his 2016 book “Liking Ike: Eisenhower, Advertising, and the Rise of Celebrity Politics,” Blake, a literature professor at the College of New Jersey, re-creates the moment when television altered the relationship between celebrity, politics and advertising. There was a time, believe it or not, when sticking a candidate’s 30-second spot at the end of a highly rated TV show was a controversial new tactic. And it wasn’t the telegenic John F. Kennedy who first saw the new medium’s potential.

I interviewed Blake about his research and what history might tell us about celebrity and politics in the age of President Donald Trump. This is a lightly edited transcript of our email conversation, with links added.

Q: We tend to associate mid-20th-century celebrity and media-driven politics with John Kennedy. Why start with Eisenhower?

A: Celebrity politics in the United States actually dates back to the mid-19th century with actors raising money for candidates, giving political speeches, and even running for office. It was in the 1930s, however, that celebrities organized themselves into advocacy groups that supported or opposed Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. This was an era where stars from both parties would take out advertisements in the newspapers promoting a specific candidate. Voicing strong political views was naturally part of American culture.

I start the story with Eisenhower because his campaigns were the first to develop an overarching strategy for television, and with television came a new focus on the power of images and image-making. In 1952, Eisenhower never actually campaigned for the Republican nomination, and in fact, he was in Europe during most of the 1952 primary season. This left the people who wanted to “draft Eisenhower” with a problem: How do we hold pro-Eisenhower events without Eisenhower being there?

One of their solutions was to bring in lots of celebrities to help attract a crowd. There’s a great photo of a banner outside Madison Square Garden announcing a major Eisenhower event in February 1952. The banner reads: “Tonite 11pm. Eisenhower Rally: Stars! Stars! Stars!” Among the folks who attended were Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, Ethel Merman and Clark Gable. At the rally, Irving Berlin performed his new campaign theme song, turning the phrase “I Like Ike” into the most memorable political slogan in American history.  

The rise of television pushed politics to focus more on personality and image than policy or party. And in that climate, Eisenhower was a great personality.

Q: What was Ike Day? What was its significance?

A: Ike Day was a nationwide celebration of President Eisenhower’s 66th birthday in October 1956, just three weeks before Election Day. Organized by the Republican Party, it featured parades and activities in local communities across the nation. What made this event so significant was that it culminated in a 30-minute television program broadcast on CBS that evening. Featuring Jimmy Stewart, Helen Hayes, Irene Dunne, Nat King Cole and many others, this star-studded program was billed as a birthday celebration, and Eisenhower was interviewed on camera as he watched the festivities on TV like everyone else. Though the program never really mentioned politics, the message came through loud and clear. The Washington Post praised the show, marveling how “without a single plea for partisan votes, it was the most politically effective program of the week.”

Q: Did the Republican Party buy the time, or did CBS just air the show because the network thought it would draw a big audience?

A: The advertising agency McCann-Erickson produced the television show, writing scripts and handling the publicity. But the broadcast time and the program itself were paid for by the National Ike Day Committee, a subsidiary of the Republican Party. The list of donors who made the program possible was extensive and included members of the Rockefeller, DuPont and Olin families.

Q: You make the interesting point that Eisenhower used celebrities as a way of identifying with ordinary Americans. How did that work?

A: The advertising agencies who advised Eisenhower’s campaign saw celebrities as the common denominator among average Americans, or, as the ad executives liked to call them, “the little people.” Through television, celebrities came into people’s living rooms, making them part of everyday life. The Eisenhower celebrities worked hard to dim their glamour, to present themselves as mothers and fathers with concerns like everyone else.

Q: Advertising agencies play a major role in the story you tell. What was it?

A: Television helped advertising agencies become more powerful and more profitable. The Republicans were far ahead of the Democrats in seeking the service of national agencies such as BBDO, Young and Rubicam, McCann-Erickson, and these agencies were fully committed to the new medium of television.

Q: How did the importance of TV change who was a viable candidate?

A: In the old days, political bosses selected the candidates that their parties would run in the fall election. TV took that power away from the parties and gave it to the viewing electorate. All of a sudden, what mattered was not your experience or your loyalty to the party but how you appeared to the public on TV. With his warm smile and familiar, grandfatherly manner, Eisenhower had a much more appealing TV presence than his chief Republican opponent, Senator Robert Taft, or his Democratic opponent, Adlai Stevenson. Their experience as professional politicians could not compete against a world-famous general whose advisers knew how to visually present him.  

Q: Taft and Stevenson both objected to this new form of campaigning. Eisenhower didn’t like it much himself, but he nonetheless went to great trouble to master it. What did he do?

A: Unlike Stevenson and later Kennedy, Eisenhower generally did not enjoy the company of celebrities, and he had little use for Hollywood types. He came from a military tradition based on service rather than open campaigning. But he also had good friendships with major media executives who convinced him that television was an effective means to reach the electorate.

At first, Eisenhower chafed against appearing in his own commercials, and during one taping session, he was overheard muttering, “To think that an old soldier has come to this.” But Eisenhower came to recognize the power of television to communicate to people in a democracy, and he gave the actor Robert Montgomery a White House position so he could learn how to use the medium more successfully. Montgomery helped the president get more comfortable with cameras and taught him how to read from teleprompters. He introduced the tradition of holding regular televised press conferences. He even got Ike to change the kind of glasses he wore. Industry professionals were so impressed that they gave the president a special Emmy Award for his innovative use of television to communicate to the American people.

Q: Republicans hated what I would call Barack Obama’s glamour, especially in 2008. He was a relative unknown, with a short political track record, who suddenly became a star. Their objections were as impotent as Stevenson’s. When you’re facing an opponent like that, what can you do?

A: In 2008, John McCain’s campaign attacked Obama for being “the biggest celebrity in the world.” They compared him to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, suggesting that he was simply a media figure with little political substance. All of this echoed what opponents said about Eisenhower. One GOP official dismissed Ike as a glamour candidate and called him a “good-looking mortician,” meaning that he would be the death of the party. But Eisenhower was able to turn that popularity into a landslide victory. Not everyone can do that. The most common way of running against a celebrity candidate is to depict them as being superficial and unprepared.

Q: We now have a reality-show star as president. Is Donald Trump the apotheosis of celebrity politics? What is the connection between the Eisenhower era and today?

A: Donald Trump followed many of the rules of American celebrity politics on his path to the White House: He came into the race as a political outsider and used his celebrity to develop a bipartisan, grass-roots following. His campaign was heavy on personality and light on substance. He also capitalized on new media innovations to reach the public more directly. Eisenhower saw the potential in television, Trump saw the same thing in Twitter.

But in following the rules of American celebrity politics, Trump may also have completely broken the mold. Over the years, significant parts of the electorate grew weary with politicians who had developed the media expertise that presidents have tried to possess since Ike. They tired of politicians who spoke in circumspect, media-friendly tones and avoided controversy. When Trump’s supporters say they like his being “politically incorrect,” they are also saying they think he is authentic, that his refusal to follow the polite customs of television has more integrity. His bombast, lack of eloquence and verbal cruelty are perceived by some people as the antidote to the glamorization of politics in the television age. It is hard to imagine our continuing down Trump’s path of increasing rhetorical belligerence, but at the same time, I don’t see us ever returning to the soothing consensus that Eisenhower’s Mad Men tried to create.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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