The politics of pop culture

Pop culture references hard on pols

Mitt Romney’s attack line on President Obama last week undoubtedly was scripted, polished and keyed up for just the right moment. “The gap between his promises and his performance is the largest I’ve seen, well, since the Kardashian wedding and the promise of ’til death do we part,” Romney said.

Sure the reference was contrived, but guess what portion of Romney’s speech — his umpteenth in a week in Iowa — got played over and over?

In the battle for campaign lines that stick, candidates could do worse than reference pop culture in making the case to voters. The idea of Romney investing any amount of time keeping up with the Kardashians conjures images of a parent trying too hard to be hip, but the mix of serious politics and not-so-serious tabloid pop is what gets picked up, re-tweeted and rehashed. And given the state of political discourse these days, there doesn’t seem to be much concern that the mix of the superficial with the serious is somehow debasing the nature of rhetoric. The last election cycle saw candidates granting interviews to “Entertainment Tonight” and “Access Hollywood,” anxious to reach audiences who otherwise may not be paying attention; this time around, why not TMZ?

Robert Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason U., says that politicians turn to such references — even if they may not have much of an awareness of the people whose notoriety they’re borrowing — because “it is more likely that the talk over the water cooler will be about Kim Kardashian than the latest policy statement.

“The risks are that it looks phony,” Lichter says. “You can’t be older and stuffy and make references that teenagers make, and you might do it wrong.” Before he ended his presidential bid, Tim Pawlenty gave a speech to College Republicans where he referenced Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and Charlie Sheen, and even said the rather cringe-worthy line, “There’s going to be a lot of winning on the Republican side.” Vice President Dan Quayle in 1992 criticized the TV sitcom character Murphy Brown for having a child without a father, and caught backlash not just on the sitcom, but also from political strategists who cited the inanity of picking a fight with a fictional character.

But even if candidates aren’t aware of the situation they’re referencing, a nugget can still work if it’s newsworthy enough, Lichter adds.

Martin Kaplan, founding director of USC’s Norman Lear Center, was chief speechwriter for Vice President Walter Mondale in 1980 when he inserted a reference to the “Who Shot J.R?” cliffhanger episode on “Dallas,” the top-rated TV show of the time, into a speech. According to Kaplan, Mondale read it out loud, his staff laughed, and the vice president turned to Kaplan and asked, “Who the hell is J.R.?” Mondale read the speech anyway and the line worked.

With the right delivery, such lines can be effective. Facing serious competition for the Democratic nomination against Gary Hart in 1984, Mondale attacked his rival’s rhetoric with the line, “Where’s the beef?” — a reference to an ubiquitous Wendy’s ad that used the phrase repeatedly. President Ronald Reagan successfully used the “make my day” line spoken by Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan character in “Sudden Impact,” and in 1988, George H.W. Bush appropriated a “Dirty Harry”-type attitude when he told the Republican National Convention, “Read my lips: No new taxes.” Of course, the memorable line had a boomerang effect in 1992, making it easy to recall the promise in the face of the fact that Bush had, indeed, raised taxes.

The real peril for candidates in venturing into pop culture is that it takes a certain deftness to pull it off — no easy feat for this year’s group of GOP candidates. While the last presidential election cycle featured the likes of Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, both of whom had extensive latenight appearances and “Saturday Night Live” hosting gigs under their belts, and Mike Huckabee, who drew just the right kitschy-ness in enlisting Chuck Norris for his campaign, this year’s candidates have all too often seen “pop” become the sound of the bubble bursting on their popularity..

Jon Huntsman has been most aggressive in showing off his pop culture chops — particularly in debates — but some seem to have gone right over the heads of audiences. (In a September debate he attacked Romney and his book “No Apology” by making a reference to Kurt Cobain).

Perhaps no candidate should be tempted to channel pop more than Ron Paul, with an army of young volunteers and supporters. But he hasn’t given in to the typical candidate temptation to appear more laid back — his suits have been his perpetual uniform — and he’s also not tried to go cool, with the result rendering him so unhip as to be hip. “Does anybody here know the name Kelly Clarkson?” he asked last week at a Rock the Caucus event, slipping in the name of one of his unlikely followers and the fact that once the “American Idol” star gave him her endorsement, her record sales went up.

That’s why an earlier Romney line, comparing Newt Gingrich’s failure to get on the Virginia ballot to an “I Love Lucy” episode in which Lucy gets an ill-fated gig working in a candy factory, probably better hit the mark, if for no other reason than it crossed more generations. Not only did it draw attention, but the next day Gingrich responded, visiting a real life candy factory and proving his competence in dipping sticks into chocolate.

In the coming months, Kaplan expects candidates to reference Oscar nominees, especially in characterizing opponents. Success will depend on whether a line feels “authentic,” something he is not so sure Romney pulled off in citing Kardashian. “It feels like a line he was fed that goes along with mussing up his hair and not wearing his tie,” Kaplan says.

The rules may be changing, if only because such reference points are what media-saturated voters have come to expect, particularly in debates.

“You hear quips, and you know they were rehearsed,” Kaplan says. “But the reaction to them is more of a meta reaction. Instead of just laughing, the (response) is, ‘Oh, he got off a good line.’ “

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