PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Featured: Top of Home Page

Pop Politicians

Robert R. Thompson

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.

"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.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.