Thursday, March 17, 2016

15 minutes or an hour?

Andy Warhol said: “in the future everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” That was nearly 50 years ago. Is it the future yet? Some have had their moments of fame and then some. Some will never get it. It does seem that many are hankering for it, myself included in my own hybrid way of wanting the benefits of visibility without the hassle of recognition. The quote has morphed so that ‘world-famous’ now equates with celebrity. “Celebrity is fame and public attention in the media” whereas being famous has more to do with skill and accomplishment. 2016 is not the first election cycle where the issue of celebrity has overtaken the issues themselves.

In 1960 John Kennedy and Richard Nixon made history with the first ever televised debates. Many claim that those who watched the debate on TV thought Kennedy won  because he was tanned, rested and relaxed in front of the camera while Nixon was tired, had no make up on and had not fully recovered from a hospital stay the week prior. There were four more debates and Nixon performed significantly better – but the mythology remains that Kennedy won the election because of that debate which launched the age of television in politics.

Communicating effectively to the electorate has always been vital. Whether it was in written form of from the back of trains moving town to town or ink stained parchment proclaiming positions in the 1700's. The People have always wanted to experience their leaders up close and personal. Television and the Internet have amplified and simplified that desire.


In 2008 Barack Obama took the nation by surprise – overtaking the presumptive nominee Hilary Clinton and drawing crowds by the tens of thousands. Stadiums were filled to hear his message of "hope" and "change." The NewYork Times wrote in 2008 “A Case for Cool” about how it was important and valuable to have a candidate who was able to convey their confidence and joy at campaigning. “Obama, usually planted in front of banners advertising ‘hope’ or ‘change,’ seems lithe and a little detached, cool in a varsity-letter kind of way; McCain, his expression funeral as he discourses on the latest developments in Georgia, appears to find running for president about as fun as a colonoscopy.”

The McCain camp even tried to belittle the freshman Senator with an ad campaign about being a celebrity and not being serious candidate for the most important job in the world with a video designed to undermine the popularity Obama was amassing. It didn’t work in 2008 and it didn’t work in 2012 when Mitt Romney aired a similar ad. 

The 2016 election has a different sort of celebrity – Donald J. Trump. His campaign started where he was paying people $50 a head to be in the audience. Today tens of thousands of people are filling stadiums and millions are watching everything he says and does on television and on Twitter, the 140-character social media platform.

How did that happen? The Wall Street Journal reported that CNN in the first three months after Trump announced in 2015 received more than twice the coverage than Jeb Bush or Ted Cruz. Not to be outdone, Media Matters reports that Fox News gave the billionaire eight times the coverage than Cruz. The Washington Post reports on a Pew Research Center analysis where Trump received more coverage on the network news channels than all Democratic candidates combined. The New York Times just reported that the value of all of the free media was worth $1.9 billion



Celebrity begets celebrity. If you’re a celebrity you’re going to draw additional media attention which then raises the profile and draws further people and supporters to the campaign. Bashing celebrity didn’t work in 1960, 2008 or 2012 and it won’t work in 2016. Celebrity exists because of somebody’s popularity with the public. It may be great for ratings and revenue, but its impact on the country is not great.

President Kennedy had a very divisive time in his years in office. Nearly all of the major accomplishments that have been credited to him were actually implemented by Johnson after Kennedy’s assassination. 

President Obama likewise has a had a very difficult path with his signature legislative victory in health insurance occurring on a straight party-line vote in a lame duck session days before the balance of power was to change. The 4 congressional sessions during his administration have been some of the least productive in American history.

A President Trump would face a similar level of legislative gridlock – both Republican and Democrat. The policies he has outlined that seem to be resonating with the masses do not neatly fit within either major party’s own platform. So there'll be push back. More than that, though, the celebrity culture may have a huge impact on the electorate but the evidence shows it has very little on Congress. 

Trump’s 15 minutes of fame could extend to an hour. Maybe it's time to Spring Forward and look at electing something other than a celebrity.

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