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16 Oct, 2008 16:03

Smart alecs play big role in U.S. election

Smart alecs play big role in U.S. election

Campaigning in the race for the White House has entered its final phase. The arguments have all been made and both Republicans and Democrats are increasingly turning to other methods to get their message across. RT’s Derek Andersen looks at the role of sa

There is a tremendous amount of complaining, mainly by the Democrats, about mudslinging and the hostile tone of the U.S. presidential elections. But the Republicans have something to bemoan as well. Political satire is burgeoning in the United States, and it’s all directed against them. Derek Andersen, RT

“She’s a bimbo, BIMBO, BIMBO,” TV host Bill Maher shrieked about Sarah Palin recently on his popular cable talk show. The audience applauded. Actress Whoopi Goldberg smiled. Celebrity guests of all political persuasions are lining up to appear with Republican bashers. It is the most intelligent and entertaining programming on American television.

Political satire is as old as the hills, of course, and impartial news coverage is an illusion. In the U.S, politics took on its current shrill sarcasm in the late 1980s, thanks to the conservative (and often ultraconservative) talk show hosts who revived AM radio. Rush Limbaugh was the terror of the left for a decade, and his quotes were on everybody’s lips – even if the speaker despised him, because his wit was equal to his belligerence. “Feminism was established to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream,” he said. “Did you know the White House test is multiple choice?” Charming. The tough-on-crime Limbaugh’s career was sidetracked by a drug scandal of his own.

Meanwhile, Clint Eastwood, Robert De Niro, Charlize Theron, Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, conservative attack-dog Newt Gingrich and former Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee were among the guests on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in the last month and a half. Stewart is a comedian who took over as host of an entertainment and celebrity news show and slowly turned it into one of the most-watched hard-news shows on the air. His strategy is simple: make merciless fun of public figures in the news, especially those on the right, and treat them nicely when they are his guests. “I knew, when the Democratic Party made the decision not to exile the Clintons to the island of Elba, that they would return and vengeance would be theirs,” he said of their behaviour after Obama obtained the presidential nomination. Rather, he shouted it, waving his arms. Then he added that Bill Clinton is “passive-aggressive.” But he treated Bill Clinton like the Grand Old Man of the Democratic Party when he appeared on his show a month later.

Conservatives did not carry through on their threat to create their own news/comedy show (Stewart insists, disingenuously, that he is “only” a comedian). Of course, the liberals have easy targets. President Bush’s popularity is so low that he has been mocked for the last year in a cartoon called Lil’ Bush, which portrays him and his cabinet unflatteringly as schoolchildren, with rocker Iggy Pop voicing Lil’ Rummy, based on former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The opposition has a right to complain and the ruling side cannot allow itself that. Under the laugh track lies serious thought and sincere indignation. An extract from the Real Time with Bill Maher show is illustrative. “America must stop bragging that it’s the greatest country on Earth and start acting like it,” he said, to approving hoots and applause. “Now, I know this is uncomfortable for the faith over facts crowd, but the greatness of a country can, to a large degree, be measured….” He cited a series of demographic statistics. “Do you realize there are 12-year-old kids in this country who can’t spell the name of the teacher they’re having sex with?…” A few more examples are given with comparable levity. “So many people talk like this is 1955 and we are number one in everything. We’re not. And I take no glee in saying this because I love my country and I wish we were.”

The burning question in the future of American television programming is what these people will do if Obama wins. They will no longer be in the opposition and their familiar targets will be gone. Maybe they will simply re-position themselves to attack the new powers that be. Maybe their audiences will be receptive to that. Otherwise, no matter what Obama may do for the economy, the world political situation, the environment and so on, he may ruin the careers of many of American’s best wits and its best television.