Pop Politicians

[26 December 2002]

By Robert R. Thompson

“Sock it to me?” was 1968, and I couldn’t believe it! The presidential campaign between former Vice President Richard Nixon and current Vice President Hubert Humphrey was on. It would be a very close contest. And there is Nixon, the politician with the omnipresent unshaven look, the man one wouldn’t “buy a used car from” on Laugh In, television’s most popular show during that era. Nixon’s jowly face filled the screen while he uttered the show’s most famous line. He posed the line as a question. He smiled, somewhat wanly. And he disappeared. It’s back to Rowan and Martin. Was it really him? Yes! But Laugh In didn’t seem like Nixon’s kind of show. Laugh In was irreverent, sarcastic, and, well, groovy. Had Nixon changed? Was there really a “New and hip Nixon” as the campaign ads claimed?

No. We eventually found out during the Watergate scandals that Nixon was not the least bit groovy. His appearance on Laugh In appearance was a truly clever campaign ploy. It demonstrated Nixon’s willingness to lampoon his stiff-necked image. And it worked. But it worked not because it was manipulative, which, of course, it was. His “Sock it to me?” was so effective because for a fleeting few seconds he inhabited a role which he wanted to be real. Nixon wanted to be hip. He wanted to be someone that people warmed to, who was able to take a joke and keep his dignity. Someone who could be self-deprecating because he knew how cool and charming he really was. Nixon’s Laugh In moment succeeded because it made him a pop politician.

And what is a pop politician? I can’t quite put my finger on it. It’s much like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s statement about pornography, “I don’t know what it is, but I know it when I see it”. Certain politicians resonate with people and connect almost effortlessly.

Perhaps when Nixon asked us to “sock it” to him, he had in mind another politician. A politician who clearly “had” it. A politician who,who along with Nixon, arrived as a member of the House of Representatives in Washington in 1946. A politician whose rise was not quite as swift as Nixon’s ascent to the Senate and then the Vice Presidency. But, a politician who had it all — wealth, boyish good looks, a stunning wife, and an easy going affability which masked a powerful ambition — John F. Kennedy. JFK. Even his initials bespoke a certain dash. Kennedy was cool as upstanding Nixon knew he could never be.

Presidential press conferences are a kind of performance art. President Nixon’s were formal and often contentious. Kennedy’s meetings with the press were polished performances, yet natural and, it seemed, unpracticed. Twice a month or so I watched Kennedy’s suave sophistication as he tossed out bon mots and facts galore. He wowed us. He was cool. But he was also hot, like a pop star.

Consider the great cellist Pablo Cassal’s White House concert during Kennedy’s presidency. Amazing! In a picture of the event the East Room of the White House sparkles, the glamorous audience oozes polish, Jacqueline looks like a queen, and Kennedy is spectacular and comfortable in white tie formal dress. His expression says, “There is no better way to spend an evening than dressed to the nines, surrounded by beautiful people, listening to classical music”. Or he may have been wishing that, instead of being stuck at this stuffy event, he was hanging out with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Peter Lawford. But, hey, that was cool, too.

Kennedy looked perfectly at ease in the formal setting. But we knew that he was a “Rat Pack” kind of guy. The music, the roughish ambiance, the women . . . well, we didn’t know about that back then. His was a different kind of royalty. It was the hippest kind of American royalty. Kennedy could hob nob with monarchs and chill with the swingers. He could lunch with Nobel Laureates and dinner with movie stars. He could impress the austere French President Charles DeGaul at a formal Elysee Palace dinner in Paris, and playfully accept the steamiest rendition ever of “Happy Birthday” from Marilyn Monroe at a star studded Hollywood birthday extravaganza.

Kennedy was our first pop politician. But there was another young man, ambitious and eager to try out for the big league. There is a brief film clip, a little bit longer than Nixon’s “Sock it to me” moment, where we see this awed young wannabee lock eyes and shake hands with his idol and model, JFK. Seventeen year old Bill Clinton and the Arkansas Young Leadership Organization visited Washington, D.C. in 1963, went to the White House, and met President Kennedy.

Yes, the torch of presidential cool was being passed at that moment. I probably saw that clip on the news, and envied the young man, who was close to my age. After all, I wanted to go into politics and be the suave Kennedy of the future, too. A lot of us did. I even combed my hair so it looked like Kennedy’s. In my high school a constant “battle” went on between the Kennedy emulators and the Elvis crowd. Our hair told the story: the bushy tousled look with a smart part vs. the wild, unruly pompadour. But the young Arkansan beat us all out. In fact the young man, Clinton of course, managed to catch both Kennedy’s torch and Elvis’ guitar in one swift swipe.

So along comes the 1992 campaign and Clinton as presidential material. This was Clinton, who pressed the flesh with Kennedy, and would move America as Kennedy did. Clinton with a womanizing past and a whole future of it ahead of him. We know now that the torch passed from Kennedy to Clinton blazed similarly in more ways than one. Bill, of course he was Bill, did his thing on Arsenio Hall’s show; he donned the shades and brought out the sax.

Far out! Was this guy a pop star or a politician? He was, and still is, both. We now know all about Kennedy’s Rat Pack escapades. He and Sinatra were fellow performers, stars, and, as they might have put it, “loved the broads”. Although their time has past their popularity grows. As with Elvis and his flaw, his comebacks, his terrible movies and his mortality, we still love him. And Bill? Also a self-styled “Come Back Kid,” Clinton lures us still. OK, so Monica wasn’t Marilyn. Pop is pop. He feels our pain and we feel his.

But, is pop politics limited to America? Not at all. As just one example, we might start with Russia’s first post-communist leader, Boris Yeltsin. I don’t think that Yeltsin quite qualifies in the Kennedy/Clinton category, but he sure tried for that pop resonance. Yeltsin was big, blustery, bearish — stop the music — Karl Marx has left the building. If only Yeltsin had a guitar, or a sax when he climbed on that tank and stopped the attempted 1991 communist coup. Still, he seemed to have potential. He went on tour, so to speak, took his act on the road. Unfortunately, as Russia spiraled into turmoil, Boris seemed less cozy, more fizz than pop.

In 1996 Yeltsin ran for re-election, and I attended one of his rock concert campaign events. I was standing in Red Square, but it looked like the set of America’s 1970s show, “Hullabaloo”. Mini-skirted young women, and shaggy haired, flair trousered young men frugged and twisted to music loud enough to wake Lenin in his nearby tomb. But Yeltsin wasn’t there. He was at another rock extravaganza, which was televised all over the country, and held in his home town of Yekaterinburg. Suit jacket of, shirt sleeves up, tie flapping wildly, he bumped and twisted around another group of leggy women and bare chested men dancers. He looked kind of wobbly at the concert’s end. His gyrations may have helped him win re-election as Russia’s president. They also gave him a heart attack. He did recover, but the Russians tired of his erratic antics. The current Russian president is the distinctly non-pop Vladimir Putin. I guess the Russians aren’t ready for a pop politician, after all.

But the Czechs are ready, as they have shown over the last decade since their successful 1989 revolution against communist rule. Vaclav Havel will soon step down after almost 13 as the Czech republic’s president. He was president of Czechoslovakia until the nation split in two; the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993. Then he became president of the Czech Republic. Havel’s reviews have been mixed, but as I found out while visiting Prague this summer, they were more good than bad. His road to pop stardom was difficult, and his 13-year tour was bumpy. But the Czechs I talked with still cherish him. Havel may retire, but like Paul McCartney, that eminence gris of pop music who still produces, Havel will no doubt continue to offer his riffs on politics.

Vaclav Havel’s affinity for rock, and in particular the idiosyncratic American progressive rocker Frank Zappa, no doubt helped elevate Havel to pop politician status. Playwright and dissident, Havel went from communist jail cell to the Czech presidency. At times he looked more a like world weary Bogart-in-Casablanca type (not that that’s not cool) than a pop star. My Czech friends, though, definitely see him as both a great mainstream artist and an unconventional politician. He’s cool enough to have his own web page, wherein he linked anti-communist dissent with rock. He found common ground with Zappa’s countercultural critiques. The film Frank Zappa: The Man and His Music Legacy of A Cultural Guerrilla notes that Havel called Zappa “one of the gods of the Czech underground. . .”

Sinatra, Elvis. . .Frank Zappa? OK, it’s a mixed bag of influencers, but so too, those influenced. Havel relished Zappa’s music as an anti-communist weapon, and as a way to escape “from the world of the presidency” (ibid). And talk about breaking the rules. Havel appointed Zappa to a cultural liaison position in the Czech Ministry of Culture. Conservatives in his own country and the US, such as the American “mothers against invention,” Tipper Gore and Susan Baker, who led a crusade against “obscene” music lyrics, fiercely criticized Havel for his affiliation.

He was further criticized, especially in the Czech Republic, over his 1997 marriage to Czech actress Dagmar Veskrna — 17 years his junior. Havel’s first wife, Olga, died of cancer in 1996. They were soul mates in dissent. One of Havel’s best known works, Letters to Olga: June 1979-September 1982, is a volume of his letters to her during his time in prison. Some Czechs thought the quick remarriage to a young, vivacious actress was unseemly. Like Clinton, not happy about, but not overly fazed by the criticism, either, Havel left office five years later, his popularity intact. No doubt Frank Zappa’s spirit looks over his shoulder.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/thompson021226/