Politicians co-opt pop culture to build, improve their images

September 18, 1992|By Jim Emerson | Jim Emerson,Orange County Register

Does this sound familiar?

"We've got to face it, politics has entered a new stage. . . . Instead of long-winded public debates, people want capsule slogans -- 'Time for a change,' 'The mess in Washington,' 'More bang for the buck': Punchlines and glamour."

No, it's not a sound bite from the 1992 presidential campaign.

It's a quote from a political kingmaker in Elia Kazan's 1957 film "A Face in the Crowd" -- and it demonstrates that Hollywood has been exposing and satirizing electronic-age demagoguery for decades.

Today, the image-conscious, sound-bite form of politics has become commonplace. Politicians have learned that by either associating or distancing themselves from certain pop-culture images manufactured by Hollywood, they can create an easily definable -- and hopefully electable -- public profile for themselves.

Officeholders and candidates now routinely co-opt and criticize symbols, song lyrics and catch phrases from popular entertainment, often twisting their original meanings to suit their political agendas:

Vice President Dan Quayle attacks TV character Murphy Brown's decision to become a single parent, broadens the attack to include all of Hollywood, the media and the "cultural elite," and starts a national debate (or mudslinging contest) over "family values."

In an apparent effort to demonstrate he's not beholden to Jesse Jackson, Bill Clinton criticizes virtually unknown rapper Sister Souljah for an allegedly racist statement that was taken out of context.

Georgia Congressman Newt Gingrich, minority whip, likens the Democrats' "family values" to those of Woody Allen.

But politicians and movie stars have been blurring the lines between showbiz and politics for years. As president, ex-movie actor Ronald Reagan quoted former Carmel, Calif., Mayor Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry character ("Go ahead, make my day") and invoked Sylvester Stallone's invincible Rambo character, a musclebound Vietnam vet on the rampage, in foreign policy speeches.

Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke more recently attempted to appropriate Randy Newman's poignant yet satirical song "Louisiana, 1927" (featured in the film "Blaze") for his gubernatorial campaign in that Southern state. But Newman, whose politics are diametrically opposed to Duke's, refused permission.

And George Bush's 1988 campaign adopted the slogan "Don't Worry, Be Happy" from Bobby McFerrin's song in the movie "Cocktail," transforming a mindless ditty about forgetting your troubles into a politicized theme song about willful denial.

"I think we've all seen the co-opting of things -- symbols, music -- that were once held dear," says Tim Robbins, writer, director and star of the pseudo-documentary political satire "Bob Roberts," about a millionaire folksinger who enters politics.

"I mean, songs that meant a lot to us now advertise sneakers. That's got to do something to one's psyche. So ['Bob Roberts'] is as much a movie about the co-opting of entertainment as it is about politics: the triumph of image over substance and how similar entertainment and politics have become.

"I couldn't believe when Bush was making those speeches last year saying 'Give peace a chance' [quoting a Vietnam protest song by John Lennon] when he was talking about going to war!" Mr. Robbins recalls. "That's some strange stuff."

"It's no coincidence that the show Quayle attacked was the top-rated show on television," Mr. Robbins said of the swipe at "Murphy Brown." "It makes perfect sense. He's looking for the same ratings. They all do that. Popular culture is too pervasive for politicans to ignore."

Likewise, Mr. Reagan cited Bruce Springsteen as a shining example of Americanism and his 1984 campaign attempted to associate itself with Mr. Springsteen's megahit album "Born in the USA," mistaking a scathing indictment of the treatment of war veterans for a gung-ho patriotic anthem. Springsteen refused to allow the Republicans to use his song.

But Republicans certainly aren't the only ones to use pop songs for political purposes. In 1988, the Democrats adopted Neil Diamond's immigration anthem "America," written for Mr. Diamond's 1980 movie remake of "The Jazz Singer," as the theme song for their convention.

What pop-culture supplies for politicians is an easy, shorthand way of establishing an appealing popular image. It is, in effect, just a newer way of wrapping oneself in the flag. Or associating oneself with the abstract symbols of motherhood and apple pie.

If contemporary politics demonstrates anything, it's thapop-culture images -- no matter what their original significance -- become meaningless.

And as tennis star Andre Agassi so aptly told us in a TV ad: "Image is everything."

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