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TODAY

Saturday, February 23

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Airbags

At last week's Academy Awards, former vice president — and, several would argue, former president — Al Gore not only nabbed an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature for An Inconvenient Truth (it also won for Best Song), but he also contributed one of the funnier scripted bits of the evening. Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio informed the audience that the Oscars had "gone green" in response to the threat of global warming, Gore's chief crusade since he conceded the election to George W. Bush in 2000. After three-time nominee DiCaprio called Gore a "true champion for the cause," he asked — for the second time — if Gore wanted to make any sort of announcement. Gore claimed to be "kind of surprised at the feelings welling up." As the audience laughed, he removed a piece of paper from his tuxedo jacket. He intoned, "My fellow Americans, I'm going to take this opportunity right here and now to formally announce—"

Then a loud swell of violins cut him off, making it impossible to hear anything else he had to say. (A clip and the complete transcript are here.) It was a clever play on the tendency for the Oscar orchestra to "play off" the winners who dare to speak more than one minute after being handed a gold statue of a naked man holding a sword. It was also, pointedly, a good-natured poke at Gore's perennial bridesmaid status.

No worries — this isn't an attempt to horn in on Revenge of the Second City's turf. I'm not that savvy... or that well informed, sadly. I'll just mention a few recent examples of when the lines blur between politics and pop.

Gore is the most recent master of this art. He hosted an episode of Saturday Night Live in December 2002, which was risky at the time because he was still considering entering the 2004 race. He didn't run, of course. Gore returned to the comedy show last spring to push his film and take a few shots at the current administration. In a monologue set on a "parallel Earth," President Gore solemnly addressed the nation:

As I speak, the gigantic National Budget Surplus is down to a perilously low 11 trillion dollars. And don't get any ideas! That money is staying in the very successful lock-box. We're not touching it! Of course, we could give economic aid to China or lend money to the Saudis again, but right now, we are already so loved by everyone in the world that American tourists can't even go over to Europe anymore without getting hugged. There are some of you would like to spend our money on some "made-up war" we could make up. To you I say, 'what part of lock-box don't you understand?' What if there's a hurricane or a tornado? Unlikely I know, because of the anti-hurricane and tornado machine I was instrumental in helping to develop... but what if? What if the scientists are right and one of those giant glaciers hits Boston? That's why we have the lock-box. As for immigration, solving it came at a heavy cost and I personally regret the loss of California. However, the new "Mexifornian" economy is strong and El Presidente Schwarzenegger is doing a great job.

Gore is not the only politician to stop by Lorne Michaels' set. Bob Dole appeared on SNL opposite Norm MacDonald, who had been portraying Dole for a number of months, after Dole lost the 1996 election. MacDonald was upset that he wouldn't be playing the president in sketches for the next four years; the Senate majority leader reassured him that MacDonald's impression wasn't that good anyway:

Bob Dole: Well, believe me, Norm, running for president doesn't always keep you on the front pages, unless you, of course, take a dive off of a podium.
Norm MacDonald: Yeah, that did get a lot of coverage, didn't it?
Bob Dole: Yeah, and thanks for noticing, here on Saturday Night Live. I appreciate it.
Norm MacDonald: I don't write a lot of this stuff!
Bob Dole: I don't, either.

If Dole had shown this sense of humor before voters went to the polls that November, he might have had better numbers.

Manipulation of visual media dates back to the televised debates between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, and what was Ronald Reagan's presidency but a glossy, shiny tribute to the overwhelmingly shallow surface of the 1980s? He was an actor…literally. However, we can't talk Pop Presidents without mentioning The Big One: Bill Clinton. He deliberately courted younger voters as well as his peers, Baby Boomers. He donned sunglasses and wailed on a saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show (remember Arsenio? and the Dog Pound? Ah, the early '90s). He chose the Fleetwood Mac tune "Don't Stop" as his campaign song. He participated in a "town hall" meeting on MTV and generated a controversy by answering the question "Boxers or briefs?" Yes, really. It seems only fitting that as his wife campaigns for the job he held from 1993 to 2001, Bill Clinton will be a keynote speaker at TV Land's upfront this March. (Upfronts are when television stations meet with the media each spring to unveil new shows and fall schedules.) I'm not making this up. The man who signed the Brady Bill and championed humanitarian causes during and after his presidential stint will be talking to reporters about the latest classic TV lineup. (Insert your own Leave It To Beaver joke here.) Is this a surprise from the man who denied having sex with "that woman, Monica Lewinsky" and said that he smoked pot but didn't inhale?

Fast forward 14 years to Illinois senator Barack Obama's recent appearance on The Tonight Show. In his 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father, Obama admitted to using alcocol, marijuana and cocaine in his teenage years. When Jay Leno jokingly asked the politician in December if he had inhaled, Obama replied, "That was the point." Refreshing honesty? A change in the times? Both? Several weeks later, Obama made it official: he was running in 2008.

Last week, Republican John McCain announced his intent to David Letterman on The Late Show. And Hillary Clinton confirmed the rumors about her candidacy on her website. However, Obama, who is several years younger than either of these candidates, formalized his bid for the job at a large rally in Springfield, Illinois, the Land of Lincoln. It's interesting that Clinton and McCain chose to use the Internet and a late-night talk show, respectively, while the several-years-younger Obama took a more traditional route. These are obviously calculated steps and choices as the three senators — and whomever else — throw their hats into the ring. The contenders will definitely crisscross the country, giving stump speeches in important states and meeting as many voters as possible. But they'll most likely stop by The View or The Oprah Winfrey Show, too, for a hat or a nosh or an "impromptu" piano solo. Just another day in pop politics.

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About the Author(s)

As a child, Dee Stiffler was only allowed to watch one hour of television a day. She usually chose Sesame Street. Today, she overcompensates by knowing far too much about the CW's lineup as well as pop culture in general. Email her at pop@gapersblock.com.

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