Alec Baldwin and Kate McKinnon as Trump and Clinton on Saturday Night Live

National Sweeps: The Merger of TV and Presidential Elections

Beyond reality stars and dynasties, TV can influence what we accept in our political leaders.

There’s no denying that Hollywood caters to US politics, when the CBS hit Blue Bloods (debuted 2010) portrays a cop family conveniently named “Reagan”. Even in the ’60s, it wasn’t a stretch to see James T. Kirk (William Shatner) as a fictional replacement for President Kennedy (New Frontier / “the final frontier” is an easy connection to make).

Still, we tend to deny the reverse: Hollywood fictions affect who’s nominated and elected president. It sounds bizarre, as if to credit casting directors with psychic powers, but consider that both screen stars and politicians achieve mass appeal by pleasing the zeitgeist, and we encounter them on the same screen: television.

The typical POTUS has much in common with the typical TV hit: he roars in with promises of change, soon tempered by reality; is both loved and hated; lasts four-to-eight years, faltering in the second half; anoints a successor (spin-off); retires to nostalgia, lectures, or guest shots; and eventually comes in for reappraisal. Dramas seem more relevant here than sitcoms: we laugh at human foibles, but a long-running drama speaks to a deeper identification.

Even before his famous TV debate with Richard Nixon, John F. Kennedy benefited from pop culture. His famous family may have evoked the Old West clans of then-hit series Zorro, Bonanza, and Maverick. As an Ivy League-educated scion of wealth, JFK might have come across as too slick and urbane, except for the late-’50s prominence of jazz, rock and roll, Hugh Hefner, and (JFK’s friends) Hollywood’s Rat Pack.

Like the popular crime drama Peter Gunn (1958-61), in which the title’s suave private investigator liaised with a balding city cop, the combination of Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson mixed sexy sophistication with dogged attention to bureaucratic detail. A rumpled, gauche Texan, LBJ was not telegenic, but under tragic circumstances, this was easily overlooked. In retrospect, LBJ’s decisive victory in the 1964 election was the end of an era: in the elections of 1968, 1972, 1976, and 2008, the balding candidate lost; LBJ remains the last bald US president.

Nixon also struggled as a TV president, thus his eight-year delay: Nixon’s 1960 loss is usually blamed specifically on his appearance (fidgety, 5 o’clock shadow) in the debate against Kennedy (radio listeners reportedly favored Nixon). Nixon never adjusted to an age of constant media scrutiny, which led to his demise in the Watergate scandal, but also makes him good fodder for biopics. Even Nixon and the other non-telegenic presidents likely benefitted from the small-screen familiarity of odd ducks Milton Berle, Alfred Hitchcock, and Ed Sullivan.

Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan respectively embody the two dominant hero-types of ’70s TV. Carter was the unassuming, (relatively) fair-haired good neighbor common to family-hour shows: Ralph Waite on The Waltons (1971-81), Bill Bixby on The Incredible Hulk (1978-82), and various heroic doctors. Just as Pa Ingalls (Michael Landon) on Little House on the Prairie (1974-83) was played by an erstwhile Bonanza (1959-73) son, Carter was a mild variant of the Kennedy template.

Like Dan Quayle and Bush-43, Jimmy Carter had a boyish quality; the same quality contributed to the careers of Robert Redford, Stephen Collins, and Brad Pitt. In 1972, Robert Redford scored as The Candidate, a newcomer to politics who’s soon disillusioned. In 1979, Collins essentially played a Carter-surrogate in Star Trek: The Motion Picture: Will Decker is a straw (haired) man to be shoved aside by the returning Jim Kirk. In deference to the market, the movie Kirk turned Reaganesque, openly despising Klingons and reaching out to the (Vulcan) religious right.

After the double-shock of Vietnam and Watergate, Americans craved authenticity. Jimmy Carter, the peanut farmer with a high-watt smile, seemed to qualify, but as president, he became a scold. Even as President Carter told us to lower the thermostat, the patriotism evident in the era’s passions — the nation’s Bicentennial, Happy Days (1974-84), Star Wars (1977), and the Iran hostage crisis (1979-81, yellow ribbons everywhere) — presaged a turning.

Ronald Reagan drew from a tougher ’70s TV type: the detective bending rules to get the job done: Mannix, Jack Lord on Hawaii 5-0, or James Garner on The Rockford Files. Like Reagan, these men were aging, but with eternally dark hair as a badge of toughness and vigor. (Then again, hair color seemed less important for the wealthy Reagan-era patriarchs of Dallas (1978-91) and Dynasty (1981-89). In the family hour, the leads on The Six Million Dollar Man (1974-78) were also harbingers of Reagan and Bush-41.

(This ’70s dynamic survives: in 2016, Hillary Clinton is like Carter, the prescriptive candidate — in Hollywood-speak, “aspirational” — while Donald Trump services the same cultural needs as Tony Soprano, Don Draper, and Dexter.)

Both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton grew up with alcoholism in the family, and arrived at the same compensation: keep smiling. This plays well on TV. Indeed, if you consider most of Clinton’s policies, it explains why Republicans detested him more than they had his Democratic predecessors: he stole Reagan’s formula.

Despite coming of age in the silent film era, Reagan was brilliant on television, having spent his life in front of microphones, then cameras. As president, he seemed to be playing the late John Wayne, offering nostalgia for an earlier era of TV reruns. (Similarly, many of TV’s ’80s hits were triumphal returns for such stars as Larry Hagman, Andy Griffith, Michael Landon, Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby, and Bea Arthur.)

Bush-41 lacked his sponsor’s media gift, leading to such classic gaffes as checking his watch on-camera during a debate. Like Gerald Ford, President Bush-41 was mercilessly skewered on Saturday Night Live; neither won a second term. Bush-41 was more like Nixon and Ford than Reagan (he served in all three administrations). Dick Cheney was also a backroom veteran of GOP administrations, but Cheney had the more telegenic Bush-43 to sell his policies. Like Clinton and Barack Obama, Bush the younger grew up with television: all three won a second term.

In 1988, the idea that Bush-41’s running mate Dan Quayle was helped by his looks was roundly mocked. Nevertheless, presidents tend to be more (conventionally) attractive since the days of Truman and Eisenhower, let alone Lincoln and FDR. Clinton was the first president since JFK regularly cited as a fantasy object for women; as for his indiscretions, perhaps President Clinton seemed more tolerable after the popular rogues played by Jack Nicholson, Tom Cruise, Michael Douglas, and Ted Danson throughout the ’80s.

One of the enduring gimmicks of 20th century TV was the series about two men, one dark and one fair, if only in hair color (I Spy went the distance, pairing Robert Culp and Bill Cosby). Other examples of the formula include Adam-12, The Man from UNCLE, Starsky and Hutch, and The Dukes of Hazzard. Eventually, presidential tickets fell in line, with Bush-41 and Quayle in 1988, then Clinton and Gore in the ’90s. The latter were ultimately compared to Kirk and Spock, although the Duke brothers share Clinton / Gore’s Southern origins. Al Gore narrowly missed the presidency, but there was life left in the formula, for parody at least: the Starsky and Hutch (2004) (Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson) and Dukes of Hazzard (2005) (Seann William Scott and Johnny Knoxville) movies earned over $80 million apiece.

All this blending of screen fiction with presidential politics is part of a larger phenomenon, described by Neal Gabler in his 2000 book Life: The Movie — and in such series and films as Max Headroom (1985-88), Wag the Dog (1997), The Truman Show (1998), and The Matrix (1999) — the levees are broken between fantasy and reality. This was a significant factor in Obama’s 2008 victory, which owed as much to casting as experience.

Like Hillary Clinton, Obama got a boost from the trend of portraying on-screen presidents who aren’t white males, notably Dennis Haysbert on 24 (serving 2001-07) and Mary McDonnell on Battlestar Galactica (2004-09). The parallel between president and Star Trek captain maintains: both franchises granted nearly a decade to a British-educated centrist (Patrick Stewart, Bill Clinton); the same again for a black male commander (Avery Brooks, Barack Obama), and then (if Hillary wins) chose a female leader (Kate Mulgrew).

Further, by 2008, multiple generations of viewers associated Hawaii with justice, thanks to Hawaiian Eye (1959-63), Hawaii Five-0 (1968-80, rebooted 2010) and Magnum, P.I. (1980-88). Barack Hussein Obama can also thank pop-culture figures for softening American resistance to unusual names: not just Muhammed Ali and Denzel Washington, but also Arnold Schwarzenegger and Keanu Reeves. Finally, President Obama’s ethnicity may distract us from another characteristic: since JFK, he’s the first “cool” president (Clinton was half-cool, playing the sax on Arsenio, but also claiming “Bubba” as a nickname and “I did not inhale” when asked about his drug use).

Trump, of course, was a reality-show star — and probably still is. The Trump phenomenon is virtually impossible to describe without referencing movies (A Face in the Crowd, Network) and television (Mad Men, Shark Tank). The list of Hillary’s TV predecessors would include numerous shows with female protagonists: The Big Valley, Police Woman, The Bionic Woman, Cagney and Lacey (also touching on the light [Sharon Gless] and dark [Tyne Daly] pairings above), Murphy Brown, The Good Wife, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder. Like the Kennedys and Bushes, Mrs. Clinton benefits from family connections, but complaints about dynasty seem captious as we watch Game of Thrones, House of Cards and Empire.

In the late 20th century, after Ronald Reagan blurred the line between films and reality, some conservatives sported the bumper sticker “My President is Charlton Heston”. The problem: Heston wasn’t known for playing presidents, but rather autocrats: kings, generals, Moses.

No matter how much he (she) “fits the part”, a president is a politician, often checked by other forces. In the US, traditional politics involved not just politicians but unions, churches, and civic organizations; power blocs and bipartisan alliances; well-funded investigative journalism; and shared sacrifice (the draft, progressive taxation). It was crass and messy, but once upon a time, traditional politics won America a manufacturing base, a historically large middle class, environmental protections and increasing equality. The political trend for image and biography, on the other hand, has brought a diverse crowd to the welfare rolls and soup kitchens.

As American presidential campaigns have become a television subgenre, past gains have slipped away; not because the presidency has become more inclusive, but because voters have settled for a compelling narrative over effectiveness.

Thomas Lalli Foster attended the school of hard knocks. His work draws on decades of research, and includes essays for Video Watchdog and Bright Lights Film Journal. His first published articles were in the ’80s, in volumes of The Best of Trek paperback series.