The Elvis strategy

Greil Marcus

October 28, 1992|By Greil Marcus

IN no presidential year has Elvis Presley been so inseparable from the action as in 1992.

Soon after the New Hampshire primary, the news media noted an odd phenomenon: Interest in the Postal Service's Elvis-stamp election seemed to outstrip public concern for the primaries themselves.

The intensity of the national joke-cum-struggle over the choice between the old and young Elvis revealed, among other things, a profound dissatisfaction with the candidates actually on view.

The stamp election was more fun, and perhaps more meaningful, than the real one.

Thus when Ross Perot emerged to fill the void Elvis' ghost had revealed, Mr. Perot was not only himself -- steely-eyed Mr. Fixit -- he was also the weirdest Elvis stand-in anyone had ever seen.

The weirdest, but not, in this political year, the most eager. Bill Clinton, a lifelong Elvis fan, won that prize. The press corps secretly called him "Elvis" -- "Elvis with a calculator" was one of the better variations.

But by the end of the primary season, a wan version of the King's lazy grin seemed nearly all the candidate had left. When Mr. Clinton sang a verse of "Don't Be Cruel" in a CNN interview, it sounded like a loser's plea.

Then came the great shift. Mr. Perot decided not to run, George Bush went nowhere and Bill Clinton surged.

In July "Elvis Aron Presley" was listed in the party literature as the "Entertainment Coordinator" of the Democratic Convention. Al Gore told the convention it had always been his dream to come "to Madison Square Garden and be the warm-up act for Elvis."

The president's attacks were couched in bizarre Elvisisms: Mr. Clinton was on all sides of every issue.

"He's been spotted in more places than Elvis Presley," Mr. Bush complained. "I guess you'd say his plan really is 'Elvis Economics,'" he continued: "America will be checking into the 'Heartbreak Hotel.'"

Despite Mr. Clinton's growing lead, the president persisted into the fall.

"I finally figured out why [Mr. Clinton] compares himself to Elvis," he said. "The minute he has to take a stand on something he starts wiggling."

The tone was sour, like 1950s bluenoses sniffing at "Elvis the Pelvis." You could almost hear Elvis objecting. (He hated the word "wiggle.")

Even Bill Clinton finally felt free to join the conversation. "I don't think Bush would have liked Elvis very much," he said.

It was a charge the president couldn't pork rind and it raised the question of why he would risk alienating working-class white Southerners with remarks that disparaged a cultural hero.

The simple answer is this: Slap Elvis on anything and you'll be noticed. Elvis in a speech is a guaranteed sound bite on the evening news.

But if Elvis is a hook, he -- or it -- is also a hook lodged in millions of hearts. You're guaranteed a response when you pull the Elvis cord, but there's no guarantee what the response will be.

For Mr. Bush, the invocation backfired. For Russell Feingold, the Democratic senatorial candidate in Wisconsin, it was a charm.

The candidate's primary victory was due in large part to a TV ad featuring an Enquirer-style "Elvis Endorses Feingold" story.

Last week in Milwaukee Mr. Clinton endorsed Mr. Feingold, saying: "The real reason that I so deeply, deeply support him is that Elvis supports him."

And for Mr. Clinton, Elvis clearly helped. After the primaries, when he had fallen drastically behind the president and Mr. Perot, he took his saxophone onto "The Arsenio Hall Show" and blew "Heartbreak Hotel."

That moment may have turned the race around. Mr. Clinton xTC stepped forward as if to say: All right. Who cares? Let's rip it up.

For the first time in the campaign Mr. Clinton was more Elvis than calculator. The spirit of freedom in Elvis' best music is a freedom of self-discovery -- and that night Mr. Clinton accepted the gift.

Playing the old song as best he could, he was more fan than star, more himself than Elvis, but perhaps just Elvis enough.

Greil Marcus is author of "Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession."

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