Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of
The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, (OUP) and
Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents: George Washington to Barack Obama . His other books include: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN. His website is giltroy.com. His next book “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published this fall by Oxford University Press.
Barack’s Infomercial: Too Cheesy for a Potential President?
I confess when I first heard that Obama was buying thirty minutes of prime time, I assumed it was for a traditional, thirty-minute closing campaign address. I was excited in that evoked the mid-twentieth century campaigns of Adlai Stevenson and John Kennedy, of Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey. I was curious to see how Obama – with his extraordinary oratorical skill -- would pull it off.
Of course, the campaign producers needed to produce a more varied, even herky-jerky, thirty minutes to keep the modern viewer engaged. And most of the half hour was compelling, although it was surprisingly sobering. The Obama campaign responded to the criticism that his earlier speeches were too lyrical and vague by setting their man in a mock Oval Office and having him talk substantively and directly into the television cameras, with a far more subdued tone. In fact, it was refreshing to hear him not speak in his trademark singsong.
The message also was a bit of a downer. The background music tended to be slow not stirring. And, following the recent economic meltdown, Obama chose to go with the more unnerving message that the nation is in crisis which upstaged his usual uplifting message that we can solve all the world’s problems by working together.
The infomercial was less effective, however, when Obama started narrating the stories of regular Americans in distress. This was what we might call the Joe-the-plumberization of American campaigning taken to yet another extreme. It started, in many ways, with Ronald Reagan’s ritual of pointing to one or two representative Americans during his State of the Union addresses. It led many candidates, especially this year, to insert moments of faux intimacy into their speeches and debate appearances wherein they told the story of one voter by name, whom they had met and supposedly bonded with on the campaign trail. In the third presidential debate – and subsequently – John McCain took this technique even farther with his deification of Joe the plumber. (Of course, following the natural course of American celebrity, Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, now has a Wikipedia entry, and a manager).
In the Obama infomercial, these vignettes, while poignant, were just too stagey and too cheesy. They relied on a false intimacy between the candidate and the real life voters. There is an element of condescension and objectification here too which is unfortunate. But above all, it just seemed undignified to have the potential President of the United States reduced to the role of voice-over narrator. It reminded me of what Dwight Eisenhower muttered after cutting dozens of quickie campaign commercials during the 1952 campaign: “To think that an old soldier should come to this.”
The Obama infomercial had more than enough rich material to be absolutely entrancing and convincing without reducing some voters to props and the candidate to a Hallmark card chronicler. Yes, politics is showmanship and a campaign is an elaborate exercise in story-telling. But even in the heat of a campaign, it is good to remember that the candidate – especially this one this week – is a potential president. And a little distance from the cheesiest of techniques would do a lot to maintaining the dignity of a potential leader of the free world.