On December 8, 2014, President Barack Obama appeared as a guest on one of the final episodes of the Colbert Report (Mercia 2014). In a seemingly surprise move, the president interrupted the host Stephen Colbert's political satire segment, "The Word." "Well, Stephen," Obama said amidst cheers from the audience, "you have been taking a lot of shots at my job, so I've decided to take a shot at yours." As the commander in chief then literally replaced Colbert as the star of the show, he asked, "How hard can this be?" The subsequent segment, which Obama renamed "The Decree" to make it more "presidential," had television and Internet audiences laughing along with the country's entertainer in chief. Obama then used the comedy show to promote a range of administration policies, including immigration, health care, and the Keystone pipeline.
The Colbert Report performance was part of Obama's strategy of using entertainment--late-night comedy sketches, Internet platforms like Buzzfeed, and even reality television shows like Bear Grylls's--not only to win elections, but also to govern. According to Dan Pfeiffer, Obama's senior adviser, appearances that blend jokes with policy promotion, like when the president appeared with Zack Galifianakis on the Internet comedy show Between Two Ferns, constitute an "extension of the code we have been trying to crack for seven years now," namely how to communicate more effectively with younger Americans (Alma 2014). On the campaign trail, and in office, Obama has appealed to television and Internet audiences as media consumers and fans first, voters and citizens second. In doing so, he has made entertainment a defining part of his presidency.
The strategic use of entertainment did not start with Obama, of course. As a former actor, Ronald Reagan built his career on his keen understanding of the connection between politics and show business and frequently remarked how his acting skills were essential for succeeding as president (Cannon 1991). In 1992, presidential candidate Bill Clinton memorably donned sunglasses and belted out a saxophone solo on the Arsenio Hall Show. Since this performance, political commentators and media scholars have frequently noted the opportunities and obstacles late-night comedy television presents presidents to become an entertainer in chief (Abel and Barthel 2013; Marx, Sienkiewicz, and Becker 2013; Gray, Jones, and Thomson 2009). But the "cool" Clinton and the Great Communicator's use of entertainment to achieve political ends did not launch a new presidential tradition. Rather, both reflected how changes in popular culture together with technological innovations helped to transform the presidential role and public perceptions of the highest political office.
Political historians frequently dismiss the role of entertainment in American politics, seeing the rise of the modern entertainer in chief as a development caused simply by the advent of television. Implicitly advancing ideas of "technological determinism"--the assumption that new technology had preconfigured features to impact society in a particular way--this story often laments the product of our modern celebrity political culture while overlooking the longer tradition of and debate over showmanship in presidential politics (Postman 1985). (1) During the antebellum period, newspaper editors served as prominent party leaders and worked with other partisans to craft presidential imagery to sell candidates while using parades and picnics to encourage voter turnout (Heale 1982). These spectacles continued in the post--Civil War era, sustaining their popularity by offering voters "martial excitement and welcome diversion" (McGerr 1986, 29). But, over the twentieth century, new technologies--radio, motion pictures, and television--and the rise of trained image-making industries--advertising, public relations, and Hollywood--gradually transformed electoral campaigns and party politics (Schroeder 2004; Brownell 2014; Greenberg 2016). While leisure industries initially competed with political parties for the attention of the working class, professional entertainment increasingly offered new ways for presidents to connect to their mass audiences (May 1980; Rosenzeig 1983; McGerr 1986; Ross 1999). When Hollywood studio executive Jack Warner sold New Deal programs in theaters and Franklin Roosevelt's reelection on the campaign trail and actor Robert Montgomery assumed a position as television adviser to Dwight Eisenhower, professional showmen gained the ear of presidents. The candidate-centered campaign that Eisenhower launched on television elevated the political place of Hollywood and Madison Avenue insiders, and its success placed on-screen performative expectations on future presidential contenders (Allen 1993; Brownell 2014).
No modern president was better suited to meet those performative expectations than the Hollywood-actor-turned-president Ronald Reagan--and scholars have rightly focused on the way that President Reagan used the acting skills he had honed in Hollywood to his political advantage (Rogin 1987; Vaughn 1994; Gould 2009; Perlstein 2015). But historians tracing the rise of the entertainer in chief have too often skipped over the efforts of his Republican predecessors Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford to adapt to shifting media landscapes. Ford, especially, grappled with the emergence of a "showbiz politics"--a political environment shaped by the marriage of advertising, consulting, and entertainment--which had redefined the nature of national political communication, campaign strategy, and party organization by the 1970s (Brownell 2014). By examining how Ford's administration slowly came to embrace the showbiz strategy that it had previously seen as beneath the dignity of the president of the United States, this essay examines how assuming the role of entertainer in chief was anything but a natural response to television. Nixon and Ford turned toward television comedy shows Rowan & Martin's LaughIn and Saturday Night Live (SNL) as a last resort, with varying degrees of success. Their efforts not only anticipated Ronald Reagan's, Bill Clinton's, and Barack Obama's successful use of entertainment to win votes, sell policies, and connect with voters through performative politics but also inadvertently changed what it meant to be presidential in the United States.
Making Fun of Presidents
In the late 1950s and 1960s, television comedy producers approached presidential politics with caution, while White House hopefuls tentatively eyed the possible political advantages of entertainment programming (Kercher 2006). Network executives wanted to win viewers, who since the days of Will Rogers turned the radio and then television dial to hear (and then watch) as comedians ribbed politicians. But the Federal Communication Commission (FCC)--with members appointed by the president--regulated broadcast licenses and set standards for programming, so producers carefully avoided controversy in their shows (Baughman 1985). Political hopefuls, on the other hand, wanted to use television to win votes without incurring criticism for being "unpresidential" or focusing too much on image rather than substance--a cultural criticism that spread during the 1950s in books like Vance Packard's The Status Seekers, which critically assessed the flourishing of mass consumption during the postwar period (Cohen 2003). In an innovative strategy reminiscent of his father's experience in cultivating stars as a studio executive in Hollywood, John F. Kennedy used a variety of television appearances--including a stint on entertainment-based Jack Paar Show--to craft a celebrity persona to appeal to voters as "Jack Kennedy fans" to win the Democratic nomination and then the presidency in 1960. He succeeded, but barely, and this tactic may have hurt as much as it helped him. During the primary campaign, he endured criticism from prominent Democrats, including the matriarch of New Deal liberalism, Eleanor Roosevelt. In the national election, his Republican opponent, Vice President Richard Nixon frequently labeled Kennedy's celebrity strategy as "cheap" and undignified in the pursuit of the presidency (Brownell 2014).
Over the next few years, network television became edgier and more critical of the establishment as presidential hopefuls became more media savvy--deepening the relationship between the White House and the networks that was at times hostile and at times advantageous. On February 5, 1967, The Smothers' Brothers Comedy Hour premiered with a twist on the classic television variety comedy show. The program featured Tom and Dick Smothers, two brothers in their late twenties, who sang songs, commented on contemporary political issues, and increasingly became a voice of antiwar protest. Their skits, which featured prominent antiwar activists such as Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and Harry Belafonte, critiqued the political establishment for its promotion of imperialism, racism, and class inequalities. By running a candidate of their own for the 1968 election, Pat Paulsen, the show satirized the entire political process and those who ran it. As a result the show became a "lightning rod for issues of free speech, censorship, relevancy, and taste" as the brothers sought to purposefully offend the political establishment (Carr 1992, 4).
Strong-armed by Lyndon Johnson's administration, CBS network executives sought to censor the controversial programming. When the brothers continued to work around the restrictions, the network ultimately canceled the popular show in April 1969 after a well-publicized argument about taste played out in the newspapers (Carr 1992). NBC, however, had been quick to capitalize on the younger demographics that Smothers Brothers had attracted by launching in 1968 the show Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. Hoping to gain the viewership but not the controversy of the Smothers brothers, Laugh-In captivated the nation...