The First Reality-Show Presidency
During the past 12 months, the most-watched reality-show competition has been Who Wants to Succeed Barack Obama? And one of the biggest concerns of our media pundits has been the danger of “normalizing” the often-violent and tasteless rantings of Donald Trump. We must constantly remind our readers, the pundits proclaim, of just how sui generis, just how different and threatening and unprecedented this non-politician, this tabloid superstar, this reality-TV king is as a candidate for the highest and most serious office in the land.
Well, as it turns out, not quite.
The narrative through-line that Donald Trump used to beat his rivals was written almost 25 years earlier. It was a made-for-TV miniseries starring an “undignified,” barrier-breaking candidate who shunned old media gatekeepers, who forever blurred the line between light entertainment and hard news, who catered to groups of voters being ignored by the establishment, and who made shameless emotional appeals.
And the media’s normalization of what was in 1992 a game-changing, even shocking approach to running for the presidency (and governing thereafter) did more to pave the way for the Trumpocalypse than almost anything else.
When Bill Clinton first ran for president in 1991 and ’92, the Democratic Party was coming off of three consecutive pounding defeats. The economy was finally souring (with the first wave of Roger and Me post-industrialization, plus a 2008-like real estate collapse on both coasts following the S&L failures of 1989 and ’90), accompanied by record-breaking, crack-inspired, drive-by-shooting crime. Yet most older and seasoned Democrats still assumed that sitting President George H.W. Bush was a shoo-in for reelection that year. The Berlin Wall had finally been torn down in November of 1989. And with that, plus victory in Operation Desert Storm, by early 1991 Bush’s approval ratings had touched the 90 percent mark. Not even St. Ronnie’s had soared that high.
When New York governor and Democratic icon Mario Cuomo famously decided in December of 1991 to go back to Albany to dither over a state budget rather than launch his campaign for the most powerful office in the world, the message was clear: no Democrat stood a real chance of beating Bush that year. But a nervy young small-state Southern governor named Bill Clinton and his “radical feminist” wife Hillary hadn’t gotten the memo.
Along with some neoliberal young guns in the press (like Michael Kinsley, Joe Klein, and Sidney Blumenthal), Clinton was the first to notice that the drugs/sex/rock-’n’-roll hippies of the late ’60s and early ’70s had become the concerned suburban parents of the ’80s and early ’90s. And the “Generation Jones” middle children between the baby boomers and their Gen-X offspring—the Alex P. Keatons and Bud Foxes—just wanted to get rich and make money in the first place. Despite fielding a nearly 70-year-old icon from Old Hollywood in 1980, the same candidate again in 1984, and a nearly 65-year-old WWII veteran in 1988, the Republicans actually won younger voters those years. And why shouldn’t they have won the youth, whose only alternatives were dreary, gray-haired, out-of-touch fiftysomethings like Cuomo, Walter Mondale, and Michael Dukakis?
Bill Clinton’s number-one priority in 1992 was to create a media contrast between his energetic, handsome, Elvis-like self and 68-year-old, grandfatherly, Eastern-elitist Bush Senior. Of all major political candidates from either party in 1992, only Bill and Hillary Clinton cut a convincing figure of the baby boomers’ journey from hippie to yuppie. Not then-Vice President Dan Quayle, a conservative Christian who loyally served in the Vietnam National Guard; not self-righteous borderline silent-generationers like Newt Gingrich, Joe Lieberman, Pat Buchanan, or Dick Cheney; and not reactionary Southern Strategists like Lee Atwater, Tom DeLay, Trent Lott, and Karl Rove. And absolutely not tired, didactic, haranguing New Deal leftovers like Mondale, Dukakis, and Cuomo.
When Richard Nixon went on Laugh-In in 1968 for one “quickie” guest shot (saying “Sock it to ME??”), it made world headlines. Back then, world leaders simply didn’t “do” variety or celebrity game shows, or even most talk shows. But could Tricky Dick pull off staring the camera soulfully right in the eyes and telling Americans that “I feel yer pain?” the way Bill Clinton famously did (to a gay AIDS activist, no less) in 1992? Just try to imagine Mondale, Dukakis, or Cuomo going on The Arsenio Hall Show in sunglasses and saxophone-jamming “Heartbreak Hotel” with a bunch of twentysomething black and Latino studio musicians. Or Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter telling a young woman whether they wore “boxers or briefs” on MTV Live. With every savvy new media move, Bill Clinton was redefining what it was to run for president in the modern era.
Instead of trying to carve up the same tired political pie, Bill Clinton had decided to bake an entirely new pie altogether. As cheesy as it might seem in today’s era of Shonda, Tyler, Oprah, Spike, and Barack, in 1992, seeing a white Southern candidate for president playing rock and jazz on an urban black man’s young-skewing late-night show was a positively thrilling moment for voters of color, particularly young ones. More than one minority commentator said it was as if Clinton was saying he was “one of us”—it was so outside the political grammar of any of the old, 1950s-style candidates we’d had up until then. No wonder Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison took notice of Clinton, whom they would later christen (before anyone had heard of Obama) the “first black president.” And these were blatant shout-outs to America’s youth that no candidate had made from either side since George McGovern in 1972. As MTV said itself, Bill Clinton wanted to “ROCK the Vote!” And he did. Clinton won young voters in 1992 by over 12 points, and by an almost 20-point margin in 1996.
Indeed, Bill Clinton was the first president (or candidate for president) who could truly be called sexy since his idol JFK had died in 1963. Clinton “was alive from the waist down,” approved feminist icon Erica Jong. His closest comparison, handsome and youthful Colorado Sen. Gary Hart, had seen his 1980s presidential ambitions crushed when it was revealed he had a longtime mistress, Donna Rice. But even on that score, Clinton changed the game.
In early 1992, with the occurrence of several “bimbo eruptions”—the leaking of his affairs with longtime companions like Gennifer Flowers and Marla Crider—many people thought that Bill Clinton’s campaign would be over before it had even begun. Instead, 17 years before the premiere of The Good Wife, Hillary went on 60 Minutes and famously stood by her man, transforming the narrative from one involving a cheating husband to one about an intact marriage that could survive anything.
The Republicans, meanwhile, were now bending over so far to satisfy a frustrated religious right—seen in campaigns against women’s-libby TV heroines like Murphy Brown and Roseanne, Pat Buchanan’s infamous “culture war” speech at the ’92 Republican convention, and people telling Hillary she should have given up her law practice to “submit unto” her husband and “bake cookies”—that Clinton could now rope-a-dope the sordid revelations about his swinging sex life into assets rather than liabilities, especially among educated professional voters. He wasn’t going to go around pouring hellfire and brimstone on “liberated” women or divorced dads, after all.
Clinton’s campaign and administration also coincided with a perfect storm of more hyped-up true-crime and scandal-driven media offerings than had even been imaginable before. In 1985, only two TV “newsmagazines” existed in primetime: CBS’s league-leading 60 Minutes and ABC’s Barbara Walters/Hugh Downs stalwart, 20/20. From 1988 to ’94, they were suddenly joined by the likes of 48 Hours, PrimeTime Live, Turning Point, West 57th, Person to Person With Connie Chung, Top Cops, Street Stories,and Dateline NBC—the last of which would run not once a week, but three times a week, by 1999.
In the 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. “prime access” slot immediately following the Big Three’s “serious” newscasts, Entertainment Tonight was the gold standard. It would now be joined by Inside Edition (starring future Fox News royalty Bill O’Reilly), A Current Affair, Access Hollywood, EXTRA!, American Journal,and Hard Copy.All these ET ripoffs premiered between 1987 and 1996, and each one of them required a new headline scandal or sensation five nights a week, 52 weeks a year, with no reruns. Then came the daytime TV “trash talk” shows—pioneered by Geraldo Rivera and Morton Downey Jr. in the late ’80s and segueing into Ricki Lake, Jenny Jones, Maury,and of course The Jerry Springer Show by the Clinton administration.
This tabloid metastasis began to infect even the most prestigious bastions of “serious” journalism. In the ACT UP era of AIDS activism, radical queer journos like Michelangelo Signorile and Armistead Maupin began “outing” closeted Hollywood or political icons like Rock Hudson, Raymond Burr, Anthony Perkins, Richard Chamberlain, Ed Koch, and Merv Griffin—as well as any new sports, music, or political stars they had reason to suspect. This kind of “journalism” used to be the exclusive province of sleazy, Confidential magazine types and the McCarthy era. (Can you imagine Edward R. Murrow, Ben Bradlee, or Walter Cronkite discussing tragic eating disorders, or sitcom stars who had been molested or who got booked into rehab this week?) But now that there was a pseudo-political patina to overlay it—of “raising awareness” of dread diseases and/or bigotry—the “right to privacy” that had used to be the supreme bulwark protecting gay rights and abortion was now reduced to a borderline-bigoted dog whistle. Suddenly, public figures’ most private lives were considered fair game, not just by the National Enquirer and Weekly World News,but by NBC Nightly News and the New York Times as well.
Above all else, the Clinton presidency also saw the birth of the 24/7 spin cycle, what was then and now rightly called the “permanent campaign.” No other president from the Great Society to Barack Obama attempted so many domestic-policy game changes as Bill Clinton did in his frenzied first term. From 1993 to ’96, there was defense of marriage, gays in the military, gun control, crime, family and medical leave, the 1993 tax increase, and a Tea Party-style government shutdown over the holidays. And then there were the big guns: NAFTA, welfare reform, and the first stab at national health care.
This round-the-clock activism on such inflammatory topics guaranteed that the printing presses and TV cameras would be running overtime. Yet perhaps no Clintonomic game-change had as much long term importance as his deregulation of the media. That, combined with the launch of not one but two 24-hour cable networks (Fox News and MSNBC) now turned every political decision into a long-running “crisis” and turned every campaign into a nail-biting “horse race.”
When Bill Clinton ran for reelection in fall 1996, with a recovering economy, unemployment cut in half from its 1992–94 levels, a shrinking deficit, and lower crime rates and class sizes—against a 73-year-old “unelectable throwback to the past” (as Arianna Huffington once described Bob Dole) and 66-year-old returning gadfly Ross Perot—well, let’s just say you didn’t have to be a member of the Psychic Friends Network to guess the outcome. But the TV news shows—now a profit center rather than a loss-leader for their networks and studios—and the magazines and newspapers (which were feeling the first pinches of the internet) depended on hyping every last second into a pulse-pounder that would go right down to the wire. “Tree it, bag it, defoliate the forest for it, destroy the village for it,” wrote a contemptuous Joan Didion: from now on, print and TV journalists would arm-wrestle every fact into a suspenseful running “narrative,” with any and all inconvenient truths to be left on the cutting-room floor.
This meant that neither the Clinton administration nor the American public would ever get a minute’s peace. We had now entered the era of politics as gladiator sport. The 1987 Robert Bork and 1991 Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearings had ensured that every high-level judicial or cabinet appointment would now become a Springer-style freak show. And every trumped-up scandal that could be used to pump up the ratings and the circulation—Whitewater, Filegate, Travelgate, Vince Foster’s suicide—was milked for maximum echo-chamber impact.
While Bill and Hillary Clinton suffered the most from the scandal-of-the-month-club atmosphere of ’90s media, many Republican politicians also needed an extra big box of Band-Aids, and would only need more. As Oliver Darcy wrote in his Business Insider feature “Donald Trump Broke the Conservative Media,” the “roots of the conservative news media-industrial complex came in the 1990s, with the rise of three key forces: Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and Matt Drudge.” (He might have also included high-profile bestsellers like Ann Coulter’s anti-Clinton High Crimes and Misdemeanors.) To appease this ravenous, Internet-powered red-meat machine, “a Republican would have to take a hardline conservative position on nearly every issue,” said Darcy. If a Republican were “to hold conservative positions on 90% of the issues, the conservative press would focus on the 10% where there was disagreement.” Ten years before Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, the roots of the Tea Party were being fertilized with the blood of the sacrificial RINOs of the Republican Revolutionary 1990s.
The final piece of the puzzle came in June of 1994, when O.J. Simpson dropped by his ex-wife Nicole’s condo for the last time. Perhaps the most famous African-American male alive at the time (besides Michael Jackson, who certainly had more than his own share of problems), the “Juice” was accused of viciously murdering his blonde wife and the handsome young white dude who may or may not have been her lover. It was as if the entire case had been designed by a central-casting office of ugly racial stereotypes.
With the memories of 1988’s Willie Horton ad, 1991’s Rodney King beating, and the 1992 LA riots still fresh, this whodunit touched on every racial and gendered raw nerve in the book. The case drew higher ratings and sold more papers and magazines than any other story in 1994–95—the equal of the November 1994 “Republican Revolution” and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and far surpassing any other economic, gang, or foreign-policy situation that year, including even the Bosnian genocide. Whether you were Time magazine or a supermarket tabloid, there was simply no way to avoid covering it, even if you wanted to. It was one of the first stories to be tabloid trash and hard news in equal parts, but it wouldn’t be the last.
When Bill Clinton looked the world’s TV cameras in the eye, pointed his finger, and said “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky,” only for Miss Lewinsky to bring her stained dress out of the closet, what would have ordinarily been a sleazy back-of-the-book sex scandal became a top-rated constitutional crisis. During the summer and fall of 1998, it was all Monica, all the time, with serious journalists slavering over the political pornography that was the Starr report and pundits writing reams of dime-store psychology on the soapy twists and turns of Bill and Hillary’s marriage.
Noting Bill Clinton’s record popularity with African-American (and Latino) voters, Toni Morrison branded the impeachment as a coded racial attack on people of color, comparing the attack on Clinton’s “unpoliced sexuality” to a black man being frisked and body-searched by racist cops. Embarrassed teachers and grandparents had to explain to curious kids why adults were laughing like middle-schoolers in a locker room whenever the word “cigar” was uttered, and whether or not the role model in chief had ever “worn” somebody’s dress. Standup comics never had it so good. World events like Osama bin Laden’s bombings of two American embassies went on the back burner. And tellingly, Osama chose to appear on a prime-time TV newsmagazine, 20/20, to announce his “fatwa” and “jihad” against America in the spring of 1998.
The fallout from Hurricane Monica was even more important than the 1998–99 impeachment effort itself. If being “alive from the waist down” and exuding “unpoliced sexuality” was now the gold standard for being president, then how would a seemingly “on the spectrum,” uncharismatic, Mondale-Dukakis-Cuomo policy wonk—like Clinton’s own vice president, Al Gore—fare?
Just before his big nominating speech at the 2000 Democratic Convention, Gore grabbed his wife Tipper and bent her over into an open-mouthed tongue kiss on live TV—a Big Brother or Behind the Music moment if ever there was one, to demonstrate that his marriage was alive and well (unlike the famously open Clinton marriage), and that he wasn’t quite as robotic as he seemed. (Ironically, it was Al and Tipper who would separate a decade later, while Bill and Hillary’s relationship seems stronger than ever.) Adding another dose of backstabbing House of Cards-style drama, Gore went out of his way to insult Bill and Hillary to their faces in his nomination speech, angrily proclaiming that his election would not be “a reward for past performance” under Bill and Hill, and that he was running as his “own man!” And instead of choosing a pro-Clinton progressive Democrat (like Barbara Boxer, Russ Feingold, Paul Wellstone, Barbara Mikulski, Carl Levin, or Chuck Schumer, who were all available that year), Gore chose William F. Buckley’s favorite Democrat—conservative Clinton critic “Joe-mentum” Lieberman—as his vice-presidential nominee. Aaron Sorkin couldn’t have written it better for sweeps month. Why, you’d think an immunity idol was at stake.
While Al Gore ran as far as his legs could take him from Clinton, his archrival, Texas governor (and presidential son) George W. Bush plagiarized the winning media playbook Clinton had used against Poppy in 1992. Candidate Bush played the media like Clinton’s saxophone. Bush fed them gourmet food and designer water on the buses and planes, hung out with them in the back benches, and gave them affectionate nicknames like “Dulce” and “Panchito.” He even mouthed a playful “I love you, man!” to an openly gay young reporter covering him.
Al Gore, meanwhile, treated the press like an angry Judge Judy. Gore 2000 staffer Carter Eskew told Vanity Fair’s Evgenia Peretz in 2007 that he used a “whip and a chair” with the media. When Gore finally deigned to go on MTV, instead of taking the opportunity to knock some starch out of his image and present a friendly face to Generation X, he chauvinistically picked a fight with a dreadlocked African-American, angrily whitesplaining to the young man about the immorality and sinfulness of gangsta rap and hip-hop culture.
Despite being credited by Steve Jobs, Vinton Cerf, and even Newt Gingrich as having (from a legal and government-funding point of view) “invented the Internet,” the famously stiff Gore was at a loss for how to handle the brave new media world he now found himself trapped in. In spite (or perhaps because) of his own earlier training as a journalist, Gore couldn’t believe just how far the profession had fallen. Despite being the progressive candidate, he clearly craved a return to the old-fashioned, “dignified” Don Draper era of political campaigns.
And if Al Gore hated the media, then the feeling was mutual. Openly lesbian feminist Camille Paglia said that Gore’s “Little Lord Fauntleroy” entitlement and snobbery were so outrageous they “bordered on the epicene.” Maureen Dowd said that Gore acted like a straight-up “loser.” “Positively Nixonian in his naked longing,” wrote the brilliant liberal critic John Powers in his 2004 recap Sore Winners, Gore had a sense of entitlement “the size of a cruise liner” and “fairly reeked of insider privilege.” Kennedy/Obama Democrat Chris Matthews thought Gore was someone who would probably “lick the bathroom floor to be president,” and Matthews said flat-out that he was voting for Bush in 2000. Lefty celebs like Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Eddie Vedder, and Michael Moore lent their star power … to campaign for Ralph Nader.
The mirror finally cracked during Gore’s first two debates with Bush, when a stressed-out Gore got up in Bush’s face and began eye-rolling, sighing, and shaking his head on camera when Bush spoke. Gore’s body language evoked Alexis Colby or Cruella de Vil. White working-class voters (including many women) were revolted. Whether Gore won on the issues was forgotten, or more likely beside the point.
The atmosphere only got crazier after the election was held and the five-week-long recount battle began. The Wicked Witch of the West flew over the Florida supreme court, advising Democrats to “Surrender, Gore-thy!” while a grown man dressed as a big baby (symbolizing Gore) threw a temper tantrum outside of a news conference. Black voters went to the barricades with tape over their mouths, to symbolize their voices having been silenced. Control of Florida’s electoral votes bounced between fundamentalist Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris (complete with her Tonya Harding-like makeup and hair sense) and then-Gov. Jeb Bush, to the lower trial courts, to the overwhelmingly Democratic and partisan Florida supreme court. Each one ruled and then overruled the other so often it was like watching setups and punchlines fly on Seinfeld and Everybody Loves Raymond. The election had now been reduced to the atmosphere of Survivor and American Idol.
And contrary to the Reagan-era belief that it was senior citizens who controlled elections—those AARP members, WWII and Korea veterans, and retired grandmothers who always showed up to do their civic duty with plenty of time on their hands—Election 2000 proved once and for all that just like prime-time TV and the movies, politics was all aboutthe 18–34 demographic. Seniors voted roughly 50/50 for Bush and Gore (even Florida’s famed New York Jewish seniors voted nearly one-third for Bush, and that was after accounting for the controversy over Pat Buchanan and the infamous “butterfly ballot”). But fatefully, first- and second-time young voters also broke evenly for Bush and Gore, in a 47-47 tie (with Nader winning the rest), a break from the youth advantage that delivered the White House to Clinton in 1992 and ’96 and would return to ensure Barack Obama’s triumphs in 2008 and 2012. If Gore had won young voters by 20 or 30 points like Clinton and Obama, not only Florida but likely Nevada and New Hampshire—and maybe even Ohio—would have been in the bag for him.
In other words, Gore was now on a fast track to losing this election because he had almost lost hip, diverse young people. It was a mistake no Democrat would ever want to make again. Just look at the threat the overwhelmingly millennial “Bernie Bros” posed to what was supposed to be Hillary Clinton’s coronation.
Like the judge on a reality show, or those big 11 o’clock climaxes on Law & Order, on December 12, 2000, the Supreme Court gave America the final decision, siding with Bush over Gore. Cue the dark camera filters and the Hans Zimmer underscore.
“Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you got till it’s gone?” said Joni Mitchell in her signature song, Big Yellow Taxi. Twenty years after Joni sang, the Bill Clinton years proved to be the era when (as Ezra Klein rightly recalled in in 2007) “the media just lost its mind for eight years, went crazy with class hatred and status envy, groupthink and scandal-mongering.” It was the time when Washington, DC, movers and shakers like Sally Quinn and David Gergen began referring to Washington as “This Town” like some kind of Sue Mengers, Lin Bolen, or Julia Phillips power-woman in 1970s New Hollywood protecting her turf from wannabes and outsiders. It was when the Iron Curtain between trash talk and serious news, between talk-radio ranting and highbrow gatekeeping, was torn down. And it was when politicians truly became TV personalities, colorful supporting characters in the latest Whatevergate, the next scandal before Scandal. It was the decade when the real world turned into The Real World. We didn’t know what we had until it was gone.
Looking back, the reality TV-ization of politics that billionaire businessman Donald Trump capitalized on and rode to victory seems not only natural but inevitable. How can Donald Trump himself not be “normalized” as a presidential candidate when the mainstream media, and in particular the media-savvy husband of Trump’s general-election opponent, spent a full quarter-century normalizing tabloidism, reality-TV techniques, and media-whoring, showing that the royal road to 1600 Pennsylvania was paved by Letterman and Leno, Stewart and SNL, MTV and Maureen Dowd? Really, is having the star of The Apprentice as Mister President that far a leap?
It is a delicious irony indeed that the wife of the man who did more to postmodernize the presidency than any other politician before him lost the White House to a candidate who took note of all the media tricks and treats the Clintons largely invented and blew them up to their unnatural extreme. But the lesson of both the Clinton-era beginnings of the postmodern presidency and Donald Trump’s current commando raid on respectability centers on one immovable fact. Whether you’re right wing or left, black or white, old or young, it all comes down to one thing. As the late Marshall McLuhan might have put it, had he lived another decade or two, It’s the media, stupid.
Telly Davidson is the author of a new book on the politics and pop culture of the ’90s, Culture War. He has written on culture for FrumForum, All About Jazz, FilmStew, and Guitar Player, and worked the Emmy-nominated PBS series Pioneers of Television.