Jeb Bush declared his candidacy for president Monday with no jacket or tie, but he didn’t really let his hair down until he repeated much of his speech last night on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show.
On Tonight, the candidate with the familiar name was “slow jammin’ the news.” That’s a standard feature of the show where a celebrity offers a stiff, serious read of a story to set up Fallon and his bandleader, who provide satiric responses – soulfully sung-spoken and full of sexual innuendo.
Bush played the straight man to perfection, although he smiled just enough to make it clear he got the joke. It was the kind of thing your mom would see and ask “Can they do that on television?”
Well, yes, mom. They can. And nowadays, to borrow mom’s word, that includes presidential candidates. Even Mitt Romney took a turn slow-jammin’ with Jimmy and the band in 2012.
In fact, the pressure on presidential candidates to “relate to ordinary people” has become so intense as to practically mandate appearances on late-night talk shows and comedy programs.
President Obama appeared on Jay Leno’s version of The Tonight Show multiple times as president as well as in his candidate phase. He seemed more comfortable appearing on The Late Show with David Letterman, however, perhaps because the latter host’s politics were more sympatico than Leno’s. In his heyday as a politician, Arnold Schwarzenegger seemed almost a fixture on the Leno guest couch.
Obama also extended the franchise by appearing on daytime talk shows, including Ellen DeGeneres’ in 2008, and The View, the latter after becoming president. He took on Jon Stewart on The Daily Show while running for re-election in 2012, and has delivered several memorable stand-up comedy performances at White House Correspondents Association dinners (carried nationwide on C-SPAN).
So if presidents can do it in office, there’s surely no stricture for candidates. Not when the Republican field alone has a dozen current candidates — including Donald Trump. The country may have serious problems, but we apparently do not want a president who takes himself (or herself) too seriously.
Much of this contemporary phenomenon is traced to Bill Clinton, progenitor of the modern media presidency. In 1992 he amazed the body politic by appearing on a late night show, The Arsenio Hall Show, and blew out “Heartbreak Hotel” on a saxophone. This was primarily a moment of audio, but the sight of the young president-to-be in dark shades, lifting the gleaming sax skyward, surely fixed a visual image as well.
But in fact, presidents had been seeking an entrée to younger vote decades earlier. Adlai Stevenson, twice the Democratic nominee for president in the 1950s, appeared on the popular quiz show What’s My Line in 1957.
And even the sternest of statesmen were occasionally persuaded to loosen up and relate to the common couch potato whose vote they ultimately coveted.
Richard Nixon, of all people, taped a five-second snippet for Laugh In back in 1968, two months before getting elected president. The show’s signature line was “sock it to me,” which at the time was considered borderline bait for the primetime censors. Having Nixon, with characteristic glower, growl the line as a question (“Sock it to…meee?”) left the country gasping. It reportedly took him several takes to get the right tone.
That’s why live TV, which has long since become the standard, is a far greater risk. Trying to be funny and failing can be horrific.
Saturday Night Live, a clear descendant of Laugh In, made generous use of presidential humor from its inaugural season in 1975. Gerald Ford was the foil, and while he never appeared on the show he did allow his press secretary Ron Nessen to not only appear but host in 1976.
Since then, most presidential candidates and their running mates have been wary of the merciless wit on SNL. Some have been known to be offended by the caricatures of themselves on the show, although the first President George H.W. Bush sometimes joked about Dana Carvey’s impression (even trying to mimic it on occasion).
Sarah Palin was famously featured on Saturday Night Live while she was the Republican nominee for president in 2008. She did fine, but the evening served more as a promotion for the show’s star performer Tina Fey, then known primarily for her killer impression of Palin.
At the time it was considered a great risk for Palin to subject herself to SNL-style satire. In 2015, it appears, that risk that has become all but mandatory.
It’s part of how our campaigns are different. Nowadays.