Last of the TV Presidents

June 3rd, 2008  |  Published in Politics, Social Science

Reflecting on Bill Clinton’s ongoing meltdown and the tawdry Vanity Fair profile, Josh Marshall reflects:

Bill is a man out of his time, out of his element, which is something painful to watch and must be a unique agony for him to experience.
Bill Clinton was on so many levels the master of the politics of the 1980s and 1990s, the magic with words and connection with people, intuitively sizing up the tempo and undercurrents of the political moment. Hate him or love him, I think anybody with a feel for politics knew this. And I loved him. . . . But again and again through this cycle, in little ways and big, he’s shown he’s not quite in sync with this political era, doesn’t quite grasp the new mechanics — both the ideological texture and the nuts and bolts of the networked news cycle.

Thinking about this, it occurred to me that Clinton is really the last of the television presidents.  That is, he is the last President whose relationship to Americans was primarily mediated by television. The first, of course, was Kennedy, who was famously able to best Nixon on TV but not on the radio. Reagan and Clinton were the greatest of the television presidents, in the sense that they best understood how to manipulate the medium to their advantage.

I’m not sure that other eras in politics can be so adequately characterized by their dominant media. Were Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower the “radio presidents”? Were their predecessors “newspaper presidents”? Still, at least for the late twentieth century, the medium was clearly an important determinant of the kind of politicians who rose to prominence.

Bush was elected as a television president, with many of the same skills as Clinton or Reagan (though to a lesser degree). Yet his downfall came, in part, because of the lack of information control in the post-TV era.  The disastrous trajectory of his regime stems, in some measure, from the shift of our media ecology toward the Internet. It was in that context that his lies, malapropisms and general buffoonery could be broadcast and passed around as blog posts and YouTube clips, without the filter of “legitimate” news organizations.

Meanwhile, if Barack Obama is elected in November, he will certainly be the first Internet president. Which raises the disheartening possibility that future historians of politics will be forced to watch this.

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