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243 The presidential cinematic image achieved its definitive form during Bill Clinton’s presidency. It was an image that had been woven out of many strands. The marketing of individuals as political commodities through carefully calibrated public relations campaigns began in the Coolidge era and flourished in the 1960s, through the efforts of Kennedy and Nixon. Models from the movies helped to define the contours of those commodities. JFK and his charismatic emulators in the Democratic Party modeled their public personas on male types prevalent on the motion picture screen. Ronald Reagan did this as well, drawing upon a repertoire of models and techniques from his long first career in Hollywood. His administration applied PR techniques on a daily basis, shaping the president’s duties to suit television news coverage . Through these means, Reagan constructed the modern conservative brand of cinematic charisma for the office. Bill Clinton, by contrast, proved most adept as a fan of the movies, bonding with his fellow Baby Boomers by absorbing and emulating the tolerance and playful sexuality of post-1960s Hollywood. Clinton also perfected the massive Democratic Party fundraising apparatus, based in Hollywood and founded by Lyndon Johnson, Arthur Krim, and Lew Wasserman. Pre-cinematic archetypes of the US president— as military hero, pillar of republican virtue, passive figurehead, and bourgeois role model—were variously adapted, discarded, and transformed in the age of instant communication and pervasive mass entertainment. The electorate, though, was bored. During the presidential election that closed out the twentieth century, at a time of relative peace and prosperity, C H A P T E R 7  THE TWIN TOWERS, 2001–2009 244 the leading man Americans evinced considerable ennui about the office and the men contending for it. In the year 2000, the excitement that had occasionally been produced by image makers in previous elections and administrations seemed to be in short supply. The Democratic presidential nomination was sought by two serious, low-key public servants who were infatuated by the minutiae of policy. Bill Bradley rarely exploited his glamorous past as a star basketball player, emphasizing instead his three terms in the US Senate and his deep understanding of economic issues. According to a strong contemporary measure of public interest—the number of references to candidates in latenight television comic monologues—Bradley rated poorly. As Jay Leno, host of the top-rated The Tonight Show, argued, “politics in America is a lot like auto racing; Americans don’t really like racing . . . they just like car crashes. So when you get a thoughtful, intelligent candidate like Bill Bradley, oh, my God! It’s impossible [to joke about him]. . . . here’s a man who’s a genuine thinker and to me, alas, came to politics almost as a philosopher would.”1 Vice President Al Gore’s stolid manner and slow, monotonous way of speaking had made him a comedian’s punch line—Billy Crystal, hosting an Academy Awards ceremony, likened him to the Oscar statuette—but otherwise he generated very little cultural discussion. His earnest crusade to clean up the natural environment was met with skepticism by progressives and derision by conservatives, and in 2000 Gore’s indistinct and vaguely unfavorable public persona became a liability in his quest for the presidency. The vice president paid a small army of consultants to advise him on how to enliven his speaking style and wardrobe during the primary campaign, but his eventual victory over Bradley still came after a struggle. On the Republican side, a more colorful mix of candidates—propelled by conservatives’ zeal to replace Clinton after eight years—generated more voter interest. However, the early front-runner, Governor George W. Bush of Texas, struck many Republicans (and others) as a lightweight who owed his prominence to his father, former President George H. W. Bush, and his positions on the issues to briefings from the latter’s advisers. On the eve of the New Hampshire primary, the conservative Manchester Union-Leader dismissed Bush as “Governor Smirk” and “an empty suit,” and the governor lost the primary in a landslide to Senator John McCain of Arizona.2 Bush fought back and won the nomination, but his reputation as a dilettante the twin towers 245 turned him into a punch line in late-night television monologues, and many voters continued to doubt that he had the intelligence and experience to be president. Skepticism and ennui persisted during the autumn campaign. The television comedian Bill Maher dismissed the two candidates...


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