Kathryn Cramer Brownell. Presidential Studies Quarterly. Volume 46, Issue 4. December 2016.
On December 8, 2014, President Barack Obama appeared as a guest on one of the final episodes of the Colbert Report (Mercia 2014). In a seemingly surprise move, the president interrupted the host Stephen Colbert’s political satire segment, “The Word.” “Well, Stephen,” Obama said amidst cheers from the audience, “you have been taking a lot of shots at my job, so I’ve decided to take a shot at yours.” As the commander in chief then literally replaced Colbert as the star of the show, he asked, “How hard can this be?” The subsequent segment, which Obama renamed “The Decree” to make it more “presidential,” had television and Internet audiences laughing along with the country’s entertainer in chief. Obama then used the comedy show to promote a range of administration policies, including immigration, health care, and the Keystone pipeline.
The Colbert Report performance was part of Obama’s strategy of using entertainment- late-night comedy sketches, Internet platforms like Buzzfeed, and even reality television shows like Bear Grylls’s-not only to win elections, but also to govern. According to Dan Pfeiffer, Obama’s senior adviser, appearances that blend jokes with policy promotion, like when the president appeared with Zack Galifianakis on the Internet comedy show Between Two Ferns, constitute an “extension of the code we have been trying to crack for seven years now,” namely how to communicate more effectively with younger Americans (Alma 2014). On the campaign trail, and in office, Obama has appealed to television and Internet audiences as media consumers and fans first, voters and citizens second. In doing so, he has made entertainment a defining part of his presidency.
The strategic use of entertainment did not start with Obama, of course. As a former actor, Ronald Reagan built his career on his keen understanding of the connection between politics and show business and frequently remarked how his acting skills were essential for succeeding as president (Cannon 1991). In 1992, presidential candidate Bill Clinton memorably donned sunglasses and belted out a saxophone solo on the Arsenio Hall Show. Since this performance, political commentators and media scholars have frequently noted the opportunities and obstacles late-night comedy television presents presidents to become an entertainer in chief (Abel and Barthel 2013; Marx, Sienkiewicz, and Becker 2013; Gray, Jones, and Thomson 2009). But the “cool” Clinton and the Great Communicator’s use of entertainment to achieve political ends did not launch a new presidential tradition. Rather, both reflected how changes in popular culture together with technological innovations helped to transform the presidential role and public perceptions of the highest political office.
Political historians frequently dismiss the role of entertainment in American politics, seeing the rise of the modern entertainer in chief as a development caused simply by the advent of television. Implicitly advancing ideas of “technological determinism”-the assumption that new technology had preconfigured features to impact society in a particular way-this story often laments the product of our modern celebrity political culture while overlooking the longer tradition of and debate over showmanship in presidential politics (Postman 1985). During the antebellum period, newspaper editors served as prominent party leaders and worked with other partisans to craft presidential imagery to sell candidates while using parades and picnics to encourage voter turnout (Heale 1982). These spectacles continued in the post-Civil War era, sustaining their popularity by offering voters “martial excitement and welcome diversion” (McGerr 1986, 29). But, over the twentieth century, new technologies-radio, motion pictures, and television- and the rise of trained image-making industries-advertising, public relations, and Hollywood-gradually transformed electoral campaigns and party politics (Schroeder 2004; Brownell 2014; Greenberg 2016). While leisure industries initially competed with political parties for the attention of the working class, professional entertainment increasingly offered new ways for presidents to connect to their mass audiences (May 1980; Rosenzeig 1983; McGerr 1986; Ross 1999). When Hollywood studio executive Jack Warner sold New Deal programs in theaters and Franklin Roosevelt’s reelection on the campaign trail and actor Robert Montgomery assumed a position as television adviser to Dwight Eisenhower, professional showmen gained the ear of presidents. The candidate-centered campaign that Eisenhower launched on television elevated the political place of Hollywood and Madison Avenue insiders, and its success placed on-screen performative expectations on future presidential contenders (Allen 1993; Brownell 2014).
No modern president was better suited to meet those performative expectations than the Hollywood-actor-turned-president Ronald Reagan-and scholars have rightly focused on the way that President Reagan used the acting skills he had honed in Hollywood to his political advantage (Rogin 1987; Vaughn 1994; Gould 2009; Perlstein 2015). But historians tracing the rise of the entertainer in chief have too often skipped over the efforts of his Republican predecessors Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford to adapt to shifting media landscapes. Ford, especially, grappled with the emergence of a “showbiz politics”-a political environment shaped by the marriage of advertising, consulting, and entertainment-which had redefined the nature of national political communication, campaign strategy, and party organization by the 1970s (Brownell 2014). By examining how Ford’s administration slowly came to embrace the showbiz strategy that it had previously seen as beneath the dignity of the president of the United States, this essay examines how assuming the role of entertainer in chief was anything but a natural response to television. Nixon and Ford turned toward television comedy shows Rowan & Martin’s LaughIn and Saturday Night Live (SNL) as a last resort, with varying degrees of success. Their efforts not only anticipated Ronald Reagan’s, Bill Clinton’s, and Barack Obama’s successful use of entertainment to win votes, sell policies, and connect with voters through performative politics but also inadvertently changed what it meant to be presidential in the United States.
Making Fun of Presidents
In the late 1950s and 1960s, television comedy producers approached presidential politics with caution, while White House hopefuls tentatively eyed the possible political advantages of entertainment programming (Kercher 2006). Network executives wanted to win viewers, who since the days of Will Rogers turned the radio and then television dial to hear (and then watch) as comedians ribbed politicians. But the Federal Communication Commission (FCC)-with members appointed by the president-regulated broadcast licenses and set standards for programming, so producers carefully avoided controversy in their shows (Baughman 1985). Political hopefuls, on the other hand, wanted to use television to win votes without incurring criticism for being “unpresidential” or focusing too much on image rather than substance-a cultural criticism that spread during the 1950s in books like Vance Packard’s The Status Seekers, which critically assessed the flourishing of mass consumption during the postwar period (Cohen 2003). In an innovative strategy reminiscent of his father’s experience in cultivating stars as a studio executive in Hollywood, John F. Kennedy used a variety of television appearances-including a stint on entertainment-based Jack Paar Show-to craft a celebrity persona to appeal to voters as “Jack Kennedy fans” to win the Democratic nomination and then the presidency in 1960. He succeeded, but barely, and this tactic may have hurt as much as it helped him. During the primary campaign, he endured criticism from prominent Democrats, including the matriarch of New Deal liberalism, Eleanor Roosevelt. In the national election, his Republican opponent, Vice President Richard Nixon frequently labeled Kennedy’s celebrity strategy as “cheap” and undignified in the pursuit of the presidency (Brownell 2014).
Over the next few years, network television became edgier and more critical of the establishment as presidential hopefuls became more media savvy-deepening the relationship between the White House and the networks that was at times hostile and at times advantageous. On February 5, 1967, The Smothers’ Brothers Comedy Hour premiered with a twist on the classic television variety comedy show. The program featured Tom and Dick Smothers, two brothers in their late twenties, who sang songs, commented on contemporary political issues, and increasingly became a voice of antiwar protest. Their skits, which featured prominent antiwar activists such as Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and Harry Belafonte, critiqued the political establishment for its promotion of imperialism, racism, and class inequalities. By running a candidate of their own for the 1968 election, Pat Paulsen, the show satirized the entire political process and those who ran it. As a result the show became a “lightning rod for issues of free speech, censorship, relevancy, and taste” as the brothers sought to purposefully offend the political establishment (Carr 1992,4).
Strong-armed by Lyndon Johnson’s administration, CBS network executives sought to censor the controversial programming. When the brothers continued to work around the restrictions, the network ultimately canceled the popular show in April 1969 after a well-publicized argument about taste played out in the newspapers (Carr 1992). NBC, however, had been quick to capitalize on the younger demographics that Smothers Brothers had attracted by launching in 1968 the show Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. Hoping to gain the viewership but not the controversy of the Smothers brothers, Laugh-In captivated the nation with its fast-paced, slapstick comedy, which targeted everyone-black, white, male, female, conservative, liberal, young, and old-with its jokes.
The hit show dedicated short scenes of a minute or less to its regular actors and actresses spitting out one-liners-such as “If Shirley Temple Black had married Tyrone Power, she’d be Shirley Black Power”-and falling through hidden trap doors or being doused with pails of water. Although the hosts were dressed in tasteful suits, the performers on the show wore the latest fashions, short skirts, bright colors, long hair-all visual representations of the mainstream success of the countercultural and sexual revolutions. Edgy political quips appeared across the bottom of the screen (e.g., “GEORGE WALLACE YOUR SHEETS ARE READY”) and the stars of the show took shots at national political figures: “Texas produced some great men: Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin, and Lyndon Johnson. Two out of three isn’t bad.” Or, the announcement: “Spiro Agnew: Your new name is ready.” Celebrities-from John Wayne to Sammy Davis Jr. to Kirk Douglas-frequently made brief appearances to utter the show’s signature phrase, “Sock it to me!” in order to publicize an upcoming film or new musical release. A brief performance on Laugh-In could help an actor or musician but could it benefit a presidential contender?
While Lyndon Johnson had pressured CBS executives to censor material critical of his administration on The Smothers Brothers, Richard Nixon saw a potential to use the tamer political satire of Laugh-In to foster a hip and more appealing persona. Since his failed bid for the California governorship in 1962, Nixon had been contemplating how to rehabilitate his public image. Conscious of John Kennedy’s media strategy in 1960, in which he used entertainment to mold a positive image, Nixon looked for formats that would enable him to bypass the press corps that he believed was always “kicking” him around. In the winter of 1963, Nixon’s friend and campaign adviser Paul Keyes urged him to appear again on the Jack Paar Show, where Keyes worked as a producer. Nixon had previously appeared on the show during his electoral campaigns in 1960 and 1962, but only to discuss specific policies linked to his campaign (Parkin 2014, 23). This appearance would be different. Keyes wanted to present Nixon’s “human side” and prepared questions about Nixon’s golfing skills, his famous dog Checkers, and his interest in sports. In each of the prepared answers, Nixon planned to tell specific stories that had a political purpose. For example, he would use a question about sports as a way to encourage “a competitive spirit and a will to win which is absolutely essential in the world struggle we are living.” In a bid to offer voters a lighter, more human side of Nixon, he provided the host with a poem from his daughter that read: “Handsome and kind; always on time; humorous and funny; makes the day seem sunny; giving his life for his beloved country; that’s my Dad.” When the show aired on March 8, 1963, Nixon appeared at ease as he played the piano for surprised television viewers during what Nixon later called his “best television appearance.”
Nixon’s appearance on the Jack Paar Show, like Kennedy’s 1960 campaign, allowed the public to learn something different about the candidates than they had learned from traditional news outlets. Nixon did not win political points by articulating a policy or appealing to specific interest groups. Rather he gained favor with viewers by his ability to perform before the camera-whether by telling stories of his family or playing the piano. For the 1968 election, Nixon gathered a team of show business professionals, including Keyes, to make this intimate, personal, and at times humorous image he had crafted in1963 central to his pursuit of the presidency. By 1968, Keyes had also transitioned to the smash show Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In as its head writer. He again encouraged Nixon to use this new platform to connect to younger voters with humor to get them simply to “like” the candidate.
On September 19, 1968, the highly anticipated second season of the show began with the mayor of “beautiful downtown Burbank”-where the show was famously filmed-and co-hosts Dan Rowan and Dick Martin welcoming the audience back. The show quickly “socks it” to the trio with a shower of golf balls. The regular performers follow suit, declaring “sock it to me” and in return lose their clothes, are doused in water, or are hit on the head with a hammer or clock. Then the studio phone rings and the recent victim of a prank bucket of water falling from the door, a shivering secretary, played by Judy Carne, answers a phone call supposedly from New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. “Oh no, I don’t think we could get Mr. Nixon to stand still for a sock it to me,” Carne says. But, to the surprise of the national viewing audience, the next shot has Richard Nixon, the Republican presidential nominee, turning to the camera with a feigned look of surprise. “Sock it to me?” he awkwardly asks. The appearance shocked many older viewers-including Nixon’s opponent Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey who refused the show’s invitation-who thought it undignified for a presidential candidate to appear on such a program. But Nixon’s appearance on Laugh-In fit perfectly into the Republican presidential candidate’s media campaign to use entertainment television to construct a “cool” public image of a likable, popular personality that would appeal to younger voters.
While the Smothers brothers had sought to use entertainment to critique the political establishment, Richard Nixon attempted to use it to gain votes. Whether or not his appearance on Laugh-In helped him win the election, the newly inaugurated president believed it did (Brownell 2014, 205-18). So too did millions of people who read the narrative of the campaign’s media strategy the following year when the journalist Joe McGinniss published his expose, The Selling of the President, 1968. McGinniss’ bestselling book told how figures like Keyes and the producer from the Mike Douglas Show, Roger Ailes, used entertainment shows, what scholars now call “soft news,” to help Nixon present his message directly to voters in an “unfiltered” manner (McGinniss 1969; Baum 2005; Jones 2004). This strategy required certain types of political skills, however. McGinniss recounts Ailes watching Nixon’s final election-eve television performance from a studio control room and concluding that politicians will “forevermore have to be performers” (McGinniss 1969, 155).
In the wake of Nixon’s victory in 1968, the new president’s closest advisers immediately began to consider how to expand this “presidential show” by casting the president as the star of national and international politics in ways that would directly serve his reelection campaign. During the 1972 election, both the president and his challenger, Democratic nominee George McGovern, deployed celebrity supporters to “play media games” while using entertainment forums to raise money and publicity. While McGovern’s friend and adviser Warren Beatty aroused excitement for supporters at Democratic “Rock’n’Rhetoric” concerts, Sammy Davis Jr. headlined youth concerts and reached out to African American voters as a surrogate for President Nixon (Brownell 2014, 218-24). Both campaigns demonstrated that the “new politics”-in which 18-year-olds could vote and party control over presidential nominations had declined-demanded stringent coordination with professional image makers, both behind the scenes and on screen.
And yet, as campaigns became more sophisticated in their image-making efforts, journalists called attention to the efforts waged by campaign professionals to control messages and manipulate voters’ emotions. In evaluating the media landscape for the 1972 campaign, journalist Victor Navasky sent readers warnings about Nixon’s extensive efforts to “control the media,” and he concluded that presidential campaigns had become a war between “two television consultants nobody knows.” That same year, Richard Reeves quit the New York Times to cover both McGovern’s and Nixon’s campaigns in a way that exposed the candidates’ behind-the-scenes public- relations operations, ridiculing rather than revering presidential contenders (Baughman 2012, 444-67). Even before the Watergate scandal had unfolded, journalists and scholars were beginning to decry the rise of what Arthur Schlesinger in 1973 would famously call the imperial presidency (1973; Reedy 1971). Critics of the imperial presidency focused not just on the president’s usurpation of constitutional authority in waging the war in Vietnam. They also underscored concerns about presidents’ obsessive efforts to control information and images of the Oval Office at the expense of being “honest” with the American people. After all, the Committee to Re-Elect the President, though involved in darker, illegal functions, also served as Nixon’s primary public relations organization (Greenberg 2003). When Gerald Ford took the oath of office on August 8, 1974, the appointed president promised to heal the country’s wounds following the Watergate scandal, but he faced many challenges to fulfilling this promise.
Reclaiming the Presidency When “Disillusionment Deteriorates to Ridicule”
Gerald Ford, the former House minority leader from Michigan, confronted the challenge of how to communicate, govern, and then win an election in a political environment dramatically changed by innovations in the media over the past two decades. In just 10 months, Ford transitioned from a congressional representative to appointed vice president to president, during which he encountered a political climate that journalist and chronicler of the 1976 campaign Jules Witcover aptly characterized as one in which “disillusionment [was] turning into ridicule” (Witcover 1977, 51). For obvious reasons, Ford wanted to distance himself from his predecessor’s administration to restore trust in the presidency. Ironically, he used a tool cultivated by the media-obsessed Richard Nixon-entertainment-to personalize and humanize his presidency with humor and wit and in the process brought the celebrity-making apparatus, which Nixon had fought to secure behind the doors of the White House, into the public eye.
After Nixon’s resignation, Ford faced a cynical public and a press corps hostile and suspicious of the manipulative efforts of the White House to advance a personal or political agenda at the expense of the “truth.” Ford’s new White House press secretary, Ron Nessen, emphasized honesty and transparency in his attempt to restore the White House’s relationship with the press and the public. In his memoir, Nessen wrote that he constantly reminded the press corps that he was a different Ron, in direct contrast to Ron Ziegler, Richard Nixon’s press secretary who tightly controlled public access to the former president (Nessen 1979).
The “new Ron,” who had established his press credentials as a correspondent for NBC News, also oversaw the challenging job of teaching the former representative from Michigan how to communicate to the press and a national electorate. For the first time since the Eisenhower administration, the president hired an official “Television Adviser to the President,” the Emmy-award-winning producer at CBS, Bob Mead. Just as the actor Robert Montgomery taught Dwight Eisenhower how to navigate the new medium of television during the 1950s, Bob Mead coordinated the television appearances of the president as well as the “placement of Administration spokesmen and White House staff members on national television programs.” Throughout the fall of 1974, Mead and Nessen worked to rehabilitate the presidency in the eyes of the press, and especially network television people and anchors, whom they recognized “influence a great many people.” They attempted to construct a presidential image of Ford that, though carefully crafted, did not appear “staged.” The Rose Garden, Mead argued, held great potential for President Ford to convey powerful symbolic images of presidential leadership for a televised news conference. Although previous presidents may have walked with reporters in the garden, Mead observed that a nationally televised press conference in the Rose Garden had not been done before, and he worked diligently to prepare for air traffic, weather, sound systems, and a way to monitor the president’s mic feed that would make Ford appear as a natural leader in this iconic presidential setting.
More broadly, Mead and Nessen became spokespersons who explained how the new president grappled with the challenges of presenting his message to a cynical public. In an interview with the New York Times, Mead explained how the Ford administration’s media approach diverged from that of the Nixon White House. Nixon, Mead explained, had an “affliction” because he “knew just enough about the way television works to hurt him.” In yet another effort to distance Ford from his disgraced predecessor, Mead’s interview juxtaposed his honest discussion about the need for teleprompters, lighting, and the process by which Ford “is slowly gaining confidence on TV,” with Richard Nixon’s secretive and obsessive effort to control and manipulate his public image. While Nixon had loyal aides who refused to “trust outside experts,” Ford hired Mead without meeting him based solely on his credentials. The interview, like the daily press briefings that Nessen delivered, openly discussed the media demands of the modern television presidency with the press corps and the electorate.
Both Mead and Nessen taught the president how to perform for the cameras while adhering to their philosophy that “the President is an elected official and not an entertainer.” At the beginning of Ford’s presidency, Mead advised Ford not to participate in shows like “the roasting of Bob Hope on the Dean Martin Show’ because amidst the debate over the Nixon pardon and the economy, “it would be in poor taste.” Moreover, Mead argued that “professional joke tellers and comedians could make him look uneasy and too unprofessional.” The following year, Nessen rejected the idea of President Ford videotaping a 30-second segment for the American Film Awards” hosted by Dick Clark of the popular American Bandstand, during which Barry Gordy, the African American businessman who founded Motown Records, would be honored. Despite the opportunity to reach out to African Americans and a “younger viewing audience,” the “minuses”-that the show “may be a little too commercial for us” and that “Motown may be into the drug and/or payola scene”-outweighed the perceived benefits. While the press office saw the Office of the Presidency as too dignified for a program like the Johnny Carson show, his staff as surrogates could promote the president’s “abilities, decencies, etc.” to viewers through entertainment programming. To show the president as “natural and decent,” Nessen could trade anecdotes about the president on entertainment shows, Mead suggested. White House photographer David Kennerly’s appearance on Dinah Shore’s talk show could generate human interest in the president and offer a “candid, human, personal view of the president.” However, in a constant effort to present the president on television as “dignified and serious and sincere in tone and presentation,” Mead observed that the press office should remember to “not employ tricks, show-business or other gimmickry in one form or another.”
Despite the public relations efforts of Nessen and Mead, after less than a year in office, the controversial Nixon pardon, the fall of Saigon, and a faltering economy made many Americans wonder about Gerald Ford’s leadership abilities. Nonetheless, Ford was determined to seek reelection, a decision that he announced on July 8, 1975. Mead and the other media advisers now began to think not just in terms of restoring the prestige of the presidency but also in terms of winning an election. The campaign team would become plagued with internal divisions and disputes over strategy during the tumultuous next year, but all sides could agree on one philosophy that summer: Ford was not running for president, “HE IS PRESIDENT.” Thus, the campaign needed to be about what he had done and would continue to do to lead the country (Nessen 1979, 169-72). Moreover, it would use what Jules Witcover noted was “the greatest” advantage of the incumbency: “the ability to draw the public spotlight and media attention and to overshadow the opposition” (Witcover 1977, 427).
Over the next 18 months, Nessen grappled head-on with what he called “Ford’s biggest continuing problem in the White House…the portrayal of him in the media as a bumbler” (Nessen 1979, 163). Nessen lamented the coverage of Ford as “Bozo the Clown” by Richard Reeves in New York magazine and headlines in the Washington Post that characterized Ford as “The Great Flub Dub” (Nessen 1979, 165-70; Baughman 2012). Incidents like the president’s fall on the stairs of Air Force One in Salzburg, Austria had fueled the press’s interest in Ford’s mental and physical capabilities to handle the job. Another spill on the slopes in Vail, Colorado solidified Ford’s image as the “Klutzin-Chief’ (Leibovich 2006).
And then, on November 8, 1975, Chevy Chase debuted his impersonation of the bumbling Gerald Ford on the new hit television show Saturday Night. Nessen remembers “wincing at Chase’s portrayal of the president” but also seeing a potential opportunity to use the show as a “vehicle to counteract the bumbler image” (Nessen 1979, 172-73).
Gerald Ford and Chevy Chase: Two Entertainers in Chief
Premiering on NBC on October 11, 1975, Saturday Night took over the late night slot previously held by Johnny Carson and The Tonight Show. Developed by Dick Ebersol and Lorne Michaels, the show capitalized on talent from comedy clubs in New York, Toronto, Chicago, and San Francisco. NBC had lackluster expectations for a time slot that had previously only aired Johnny Carson’s reruns, but Michaels had a different vision and negotiated two essential agreements-a live performance (and thus no censors could cut the material before it aired) and a guaranteed run time of at least six months (Shales and Miller 2015, 19). By using up-and-coming comedians, or the “Not Ready for Primetime Players,” the show relied on celebrity guest hosts and musical performances by top bands to attract 18-34-year-old viewers to the television screen on a weekend evening. Saturday Night Live, as it became known after a competing comedy sketch show on ABC by Howard Cosell by the same name went off the air after only 17 episodes, built on earlier attempts of television shows to use humor and political satire to attract television viewers (Shales and Martin 2015, 92). Its success, however, speaks to the shifting business models and regulatory environment of television in the 1970s and the determination of younger entertainers, writers, and producers to break from the confines they had experienced in network television during the 1960s.
Lorne Michaels, the driving force behind SNL, grew up watching American television in Canada and claimed he “learned about politics” on Laugh-In. He told Rolling Stone how his “war against traditional television” began while working for the show’s hierarchical system of writers who penned jokes six weeks in advance. Michaels saw Paul Keyes’ position as Nixon’s adviser and television producer as a conflict of interest, and he left Laugh-In soon after Nixon’s appearance on the show. Five years later, Michaels had an opportunity to develop his own approach to television comedy. Though building on the satire tradition of Smothers Brothers and Laugh-In, Michaels’ new program pushed the boundaries for what was acceptable and appropriate, just as Hollywood films like Easy Rider (1969), Midnight Cowboy (1969), and Hearts and Minds (1974) had done. Targeting a specialized, younger demographic, these films made money by flaunting sexuality, deviance, and incivility. SNL followed suit. It featured a weekly news spoof, Evening Update, in which the 32-year-old comedian/writer Chevy Chase poked fun at the national political scene, going so far as to compare Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter to Adolf Hitler in one segment. Commercials made ridiculous and excessive claims about “fake products,” while other segments, frequently featuring stoned actors like John Belushi, showed the hypocrisy of the “Establishment”-taking on the military, the mainstream media, and even the Supreme Court.
SNL soared in the ratings, showing the popular appeal of a show that was both irreverent and relevant. At the same time, Nessen’s press office was reevaluating ways to take advantage of “talk/entertainment shows” like those hosted by Merv Griffin, Phil Donahue, Mike Douglas, Dinah Shore, and Johnny Carson. What had been dismissed as in “poor taste” as Ford dealt with serious issues in the fall of 1974 surrounding the economy and the Nixon pardon had now become a seriously debated communication strategy as the primary race heated up between Ford and his Republican challenger, the actor-turned-governor Ronald Reagan, who had accepted various invitations that Ford had turned down over the previous year. The “high exposure,” “informal atmosphere,” and the ability of these shows to “expand the President’s natural personality” made these entertainment shows appealing. Even more, Mead noted, the “respect” that the “host or hostess” would have for the “Office of the President” meant that Ford would not be placed in “a compromising position” and would not face “terribly hardhitting questions”-scenarios especially desirable during a time in which Nessen fielded questions about his boss’s mental and physical capabilities.
After substantial research into these programs, Mead concluded that an appearance on Dinah Shore’s daytime program on NBC would be the best choice. Ford’s press office would have “control over the broadcast” and the hostess had a “Southern lady style of gentle questions.” Mead observed that this show presented a “nice refreshing opportunity for a relaxed, fun President to come through.” However, soon after Mead recommended accepting the invitation, he received notice from the show’s producer that “they will have to withdraw their offer for the President to appear during this election” because they had been advised that such an appearance by the president would force them to offer “equal time to not only Reagan but to eight other so-called declared candidates.” The show’s producers did “not want to take any chances” on political unknowns who could hurt the show’s ratings under the Equal Time provision of the FCC.
While Nessen and Mead debated presenting Ford’s “human” side on soft news programs, Nessen also watched tapes of Chevy Chase playing a blundering President Ford and comedian Buck Henry impersonating an exasperated Nessen. When SNL writer Al Franken ran into Nessen on the primary campaign trail that February in New Hampshire, Nessen recalled that Franken casually invited him to “be on the show” (Nessen 1979, 173; Miller and Shales 2015, 81). Over the next month, Nessen discussed the idea with the president and, in his memoirs, reports that Ford supported the idea of participating in the show to “take the sting out” of the ridicule. While the documentary record does not show how these conversations play out, Ford did invite Chase to be the featured performer at the Radio-Television Correspondents’ Association Dinner in Washington on March 25, 1976, a month before Nessen’s scheduled appearance as guest host. That evening, President Ford engaged in a humorous exchange with Chase, telling the comedian that he was “a very, very, funny suburb” (referring to a suburb by the same name in Maryland) and reminding him, “I’m Gerald Ford, and you’re not.”
Mead worked with Bob Orben, a speechwriter known for his comedic skills, to build up the dinner in the press with stories about how “much better the President’s [sic] has become on speeches, deliver, etc…phrasing.” Delighting in how it “drives Reagan up a wall everytime we utilize the television and radio medium,” Mead understood the political potential the evening held for the president to win points as an entertainer, while still remaining presidential as the host of the correspondents’ dinner. In contrast, the year before, Ford welcomed Bob Hope, the comedian who had been a staple of presidential comedy since Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, to host the event. While the president made jokes about relying on a teleprompter, he kept his remarks short. After all, he concluded, “Me trying to tell jokes in the presence of Bob Hope makes as much sense as Hubert Humphrey taking a perpetual vow of silence.” But, in March of 1976, with the primary race heating up and campaign budgets reaching preconvention limits under the new campaign finance laws, Ford took control of the event, beginning his speech by “accidentally” pulling the tablecloth as he approached the lectern and dropping papers on the floor. In a direct stab at his Republican opponent, the president then discussed how he liked show business and had “nothing but respect and admiration for show business personalities,” but he “wouldn’t want my daughter voting for one.”
The March evening allowed Ford to be an entertainer in chief and gain the free media attention the performance generated. He set the pace of the event, controlled the scripts, and emerged as the star of the show, especially as it played out in the press. The affair also allowed him to publicize Nessen’s upcoming late night appearance the following month. In exchange for Chase’s visit to the White House, Ford promised that “on April 17th, Washington is sending the Saturday Night show our very own Ron Nessen to be their guest host.” He expressed how he was “really looking forward to that evening,” with every expectation that “Ron will do for the Saturday Night Show what Jimmy Carter has done for George Wallace.” And yet Nessen’s show did not derail the appeal or reach of the show, as Ford joked. Rather, Nessen’s and Ford’s cameos on the show reinforced its political relevance, launching a battle of cooptation between the late night television show and the White House.
On April 17, 1976, President Ford appeared on television screens across the country and uttered the lines that had only recently become famous: “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night.” Prerecorded in the Oval Office, the president’s introduction to the late night hit television show set the stage for a controversial evening during which Nessen performed as a guest host. Dressed in a powder-blue suit, Nessen began his opening monologue by explaining to viewers that the job of the press secretary was to “take the jargon of politics and simplify it, and tell it to the press, who then pass it on to the public.” In an effort to defuse the public image of President Ford as a clumsy “bozo the clown,” Nessen joked that his job included new tasks such as the ability to teach the president “how to take stairs a flight at a time.”
As guest host, Nessen participated in several skits that ridiculed media manipulation and deception by self-serving politicians. But one in particular celebrated the political potential of becoming an entertainer in chief. In character as “himself’ in the Oval Office, Nessen told viewers in a scripted conversation with Chevy Chase, “And that’s why I want to host this show, to demonstrate that this administration has a sense of humor. You may remember in 1968, Nixon said, ‘Sock it to me’ on Laugh-In, and it may have made the difference in the election.” In the White House Press Office, Nessen and Mead had discussed how Nixon’s Laugh-In stint had actually hurt the former president, but public statements like this and Nessen’s appearance on SNL itself, ultimately contributed to the growing political perception that media image mattered more than anything else in American political life and that entertainment could make a difference.
Nessen agreed to host the program to demonstrate that “the president could take a joke,” but he and Ford (who appeared in three pretaped clips) emerged as awkward participants in a cutting-edge live television show that simultaneously featured the avantgarde band, “The Patti Smith Group,” and a cast of younger comedians who also performed in spoof commercials for fictional products like the “Super Bass-o-matic ’76” and a “carbonated douche.” In a New York Times review of Nessen’s performance on SNL, John O’Connor observed that the “show’s standard parcel of sex jokes-some hilarious, some dreadful-did not mix easily with White House representation” and the sketches “lacked a certain sense of decorum usually associated with the Presidency.” Nessen reported that many of his peers in the press called his appearance “downright silly” and a “gross error of judgment.” He concluded in his memoir that “looking back, it’s obvious that my attempt to smother the ridicule of Ford by joining in the laughter on Saturday Night was a failure” (Nessen 1979, 197).
Michael Douglas, one of SNL’s writers, told Playboy magazine that Nessen appeared on the show “to co-opt us and we did it to co-opt him” (Nessen 1979, 176). The White House and the television show each attempted, and not in concert, to shape public perceptions of the presidency in ways that allowed Ford to reach out to new voters and helped SNL attract audiences. The battle over co-optation exposed changes in electoral strategies and voter engagement that occurred during the 1976 election more broadly. As Jules Witcover noted in his best-selling book on the election, Marathon: The Pursuit of the Presidency 1972-1976, for the first time, voters experienced the campaign primarily through television. The new campaign finance laws, Whitaker observed, had “channeled the presidential campaign into the television studio and America’s living rooms as never before, and off the streets of the nation” (15). Moreover, all candidates embraced what Witcover noted had become “tried-and-true Nixonian devices” to “assure ‘optimum candidate exposure’ under maximum conditions of control.” But they also faced an “un-Nixonian element: a candidate accessible to press interrogation” (99-100). And, with over half of limited campaign budgets being spent on paid television, “engineering free media became the highest political art form” (15).
SNL emerged as part of this shifting political environment, which put pressure on candidates to make media exposure, and especially “free media,” central to campaigns. This strategy, however, also made candidates open to direct, and frequently antagonistic, examination regarding these publicity strategies. SNL’s political sketches of the 1976 campaign also included a set of three debates between the 23-year-old Dan Aykroyd, who played a flip-flopping Jimmy Carter, and Chase’s confused and incompetent Gerald Ford. These sketches, in particular, offer insight into how the show critiqued yet also reinforced an uneasy development of presidential politics over the course of the twentieth century: the rise of the entertainer in chief and the constant demands for image construction and performative skills that this presidential function demanded. The credits that rolled after the SNL debate made jokes about the individuals in charge of each candidate’s wardrobe, makeup, and “eye contact coaches.” While the first debate showed the election as a sporting event, including the ceremonial flipping of the coin, the third debate took on the form of a beauty pageant, covering the candidates’ “beauty, talent, and poise.”
The Real SNL Legacy in Presidential Politics
Gerald Ford may have lost the election, but Nessen’s SNL sketch had unintended though lasting legacies for the presidency. A decade after his electoral defeat, Ford wrote in his book, Humor and the Presidency, that trying to “get in on the joke” and send Nessen to guest host the show had both “immediate effects” and “long term consequences.” It may have been a mistake for his reelection campaign for the public to see Ford as “less than grand and presidential” on SNL. But in the long term, Ford argued that the decision for the administration to engage with the show “doesn’t seem as wrong today as some people thought it was back then” because the “media and the general public still resented any hint of ‘imperial’ trappings in connection with the presidency or the White House” (Ford 1987,43-44).
Ford’s book, Humor and the Presidency, came out of a 1986 conference at the Gerald Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which brought the former president into a well-publicized conversation with Chevy Chase, Pat Paulsen, and other famous comedians about the “pratfalls of the presidency” (Wilentz and Mitchell 1986, 32). The commemorative event, like Ford’s presidency, attempted to turn the laughable into if not the laudable at least the likable. Over the course of the twentieth century, performative politics has allowed presidents-from Franklin Roosevelt to John Kennedy to Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford-to connect to voters in a more personal manner. And yet, criticism also intensified as they used new technology to bypass the political party or mainstream media. Franklin Roosevelt’s critics warned him not to mix “glamor and politics” when he gained attention for hobnobbing with Hollywood celebrities. Kennedy was critiqued for using “cheap publicity” when he deployed Frank Sinatra’s personalized lyrics on the primary trail, and “Nixonian” had become a euphemism for media deception and image manipulation (Brownell 2014).
Though at times controversial, humanizing the presidency has made modern presidents more relatable but less accessible. While candidates still shake hands in key states, most voters watch presidential hopefuls perform on televised debates or in sketches with entertainers. Each candidate has a production team and a well-oiled public relations apparatus, and the person voters come to know is more a creation of the president’s handlers than a real glimpse into the human aspect of the individual. The power of the presidency may have been restored, but its relationship to the entertainment industry-on the silver screen, television set, and computer monitor-has deepened as on-screen performances have become a way of gaining and maintaining presidential authority.
Though the imperial trappings of Nixonian secrecy may have faded from the public eye, the entertainment expectations from voters have intensified. Gerald Ford “didn’t want his daughter” voting for a show business personality, and his administration initially worked to separate the line between performer and president. But, ultimately, he succumbed to campaign pressures and shifting voter demographics, as did his successors. Reagan brought the glitz and glamor of Hollywood to the White House, using catch phrases from Hollywood movies-Secretary of the Treasury Donald Regan famously told Congress to “win one for the Gipper” and pass Reagan’s tax cut legislation in 1981. Bill Clinton appeared on The Arsenio Hall Show and MTV to connect to younger audiences and Barack Obama has used a selfie stick on Buzzfeed to encourage young people to sign up for health care. Presidents have reaped benefits from becoming the entertainer in chief but they also have faced persistent criticism for allowing style to supplant substance or for being “unpresidential.”
These disputes over the place of entertainment in American politics, just like the debates about the role of spin and advertising, reflect deeper concerns about the rise of a mass-mediated democracy and the influence of professional image makers on the political process. And yet, while Richard Nixon recognized the political potential of entertainment programming to control his message, comedians like Lorne Michaels and Chevy Chase saw the potential of this same programming to counter these image-making efforts and to hold presidents more accountable. This battle over co-optation and the debate about what it means to “act presidential,” both defining features of Gerald Ford’s administration, continue to shape the modern American presidency, especially as the lines between entertainment and presidential politics have become increasingly blurred.