Campaign harnessed TV's influence, past

Even as he watched his political legacy severely tarnished, Republican strategist Karl Rove brought some unintended humor to election night — stating in his capacity as a Fox News analyst that America “had an African-American first family” for many years, citing “The Cosby Show” as an example.

Actually, Rove could have gone considerably further in crediting primetime for paving the way to Barack Obama’s historic victory. The new century, after all, has produced an African-American TV president played by Dennis Haysbert on “24,” and — in an almost eerily prescient parallel — Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits), the youthful minority congressman who defeated a considerably older maverick western senator in the final season of “The West Wing.”

Obama’s debt to television, however, goes deeper than that. And while there were numerous explanations for his decisive performance — including his much-discussed grassroots “ground game” and use of the Internet as a tool both to marshal his forces and raise unprecedented sums of money — his campaign’s mastery of TV’s grammar and visual imagery shouldn’t be underestimated.

Consider, briefly, the visual flourishes and choices that punctuated Obama’s run — starting with the speeches he delivered to massive, gleeful crowds in Berlin, at the Democratic National Convention and on election night.

Conservative critics ridiculed the Berlin event, but it highlighted the candidate’s ability to play on the world stage, just as the DNC speech at Denver’s football stadium possessed a grandeur that reinforced the candidate’s major themes of hope and change. Not only did the sheer scope of these appearances convey an aura of enthusiasm and competence, but the televised images were soaring and even Reaganeseque — borrowing a page that it often seemed the Republicans had removed from the Democratic playbook.

The presidential debates were equally impressive in terms of Obama’s bearing and demeanor — unflappable, presidential, never exhibiting even a remote flash of anger that would buttress efforts to paint him in a negative light and scare voters.

To really appreciate the Obama team’s feel for TV, however, look closely at the campaign’s final week, as its players moved to seal the deal. Obama’s slick primetime infomercial employed a heart-tugging newsmagazine format, proving the Democrat picked up a few tricks while palling around with Oprah Winfrey. (By the way, take the outcome as another reminder never to screw with Oprah regarding her favorite things.)

Finally, during a shared “Monday Night Football” appearance with John McCain, Obama talked about eliminating the Bowl Championship Series and installing a college football playoff. As inconsequential as it sounds, the exchange about a topic that regular sports fans discuss — coupled with his fondness for playing pick-up basketball — presented him to millions of males as a regular guy — or at least one that, yes, you could picture having a beer with.

So while web guru Arianna Huffington declared the Internet the election’s winner — writing that in the “first truly 21st century presidential race … the laptop — along with the array of Internet-connected mobile devices — has replaced the television as the must-have election night device” — well, not so fast.

Back in February (place hand firmly on back; pat gently), this column analyzed the two candidates based strictly on “TV’s style over substance criteria” — including the quarter-century gap separating them, as well as Obama’s height advantage and oratorical eloquence — and observed that by those markers, “To borrow a phrase, Obama will drink his milkshake.” Moreover, in tapping a vice presidential nominee with questionable qualifications, McCain exacerbated any concerns about his age.

Admittedly, a process this protracted, with so many moving parts, doesn’t pivot on any one criterion or medium. Nevertheless, over the last 21 months, the nearly 64 million Americans that voted for a junior senator from Illinois on Nov. 4 primarily got to know Barack Obama through the lens of television. And if the networks could figure out how to bottle the qualities he projected, they might just have another much-needed hit on their hands.

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