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Before the first presidential debate between Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon, the talk on the street was that Nixon was going to mop the floor with JFK. Nixon had a long career in Congress, he exposed Alger Hiss’ espionage plot and had served as VP to Eisenhower, one of the most popular presidents of the previous 50 years. JFK was a one-term senator with an unremarkable record.
But this was the first televised presidential debate, and the rules were about to change.
While the radio audience rated the debate a tie, based on the substance of the mens’ words, the TV audience overwhelmingly favored Kennedy. He looked strong, staring right into the camera with each answer. Nixon, pale from being indoors, looked frail. Not knowing much about emerging TV etiquette, his eyes shifted away from the camera during the debate. The final nail in the coffin was Nixon’s famous 5 O’clock shadow. They used a little makeup to cover the stubble, but it melted under the hot lights, making Nixon look sickly and sweaty, uncomfortable and awkward.
It was the dawn of the television presidency, and the nation never looked back.
Today, presidents and candidates appear on late night talk shows and even online series. They are guests on podcasts, and often appear to enjoy yukking it up with comedians who impersonate them on shows like Saturday Night Live. It’s standard operating procedure, but familiarity breeds contempt.
The candidacy of Bernie Sanders hit a glass ceiling in 2016, and never recovered. While he’s still plenty popular, he still can’t seem to climb to the top of the polls, no matter the field or the timeframe. And there is a very big reason for that. The TV presidency has matured, and the nuance and context of how shows like SNL lampoon politicians has accidentally slain its first dragon. It has maimed the Sanders campaign, inflicting a wound from which it will not recover.
Sanders’ viability as a candidate ended the moment Larry David portrayed him on SNL. That was it.
And it’s not because he made fun of him. It’s not because the portrayal was critical of him. It wasn’t because the jokes were “too” funny. It’s because SNL turned Sanders’ authenticity into the punchline. Love him or hate him, Sanders is no faker. What you see is what you get. His authenticity is what helped him emerge from the pack back in 2015, giving Hilary Clinton a serious run for her money in the primaries. Many argue that back-room Democratic Party maneuvering kept Sanders from the nomination, but it was far more than that. SNL mocked Bernie not for being corrupt or fake or two-faced or mean. They mocked Bernie for being Bernie.
Look at the history of it. When comedians mock politicians, they usually mock the “act” politicians put on for the crowd.
Kate McKinnon portrayed Hillary as publicly affable and privately ruthless, which may very well be true, but it was still a fiction. They mocked Ronald Reagan on SNL by portraying him as publicly feeble and privately sharp as a tack. Essentially, they called him an idiot by making fun of the idea of his being smart. They mocked Gerald Ford with pratfalls, portraying him as clumsy, because Ford’s personality was so devoid of energy, they had to make up something funnier than the actual guy. And Nixon? Well, he was his own punchline, uttering Sock it to Me on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In in a manner so laughably awkward, even Rich Little’s impersonation of him wasn’t as funny as the real thing..
In other words, their deficiencies were the source of the comedy. With Sanders, they turned the primary source of his appeal — his refusal to soften himself for the cameras — into the joke itself. I am not sure he even realizes it himself, but when the source of a politician’s strength becomes a popular punchline, it forever colors how voters in the era of politics-as-reality-TV perceive them. When they see Bernie, they don’t see Bernie. They see Larry David, who many TV critics argued was better at being Bernie than Bernie is.
It may feel imperceptible, but when voters can no longer hear the presidential voice in a candidate, it turns the candidate into a friend, a buddy, someone they can respect and appreciate, but they’ll never vote for him. SNL did not offer a cartoon portrayal of the man. They made the man into the cartoon.
Unfortunately, Sanders has been done for quite some time. It’s time for him to realize that, because if he waits for the voters to tell him, the results could be frightening and tragic.
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