When ex-actor Ronald Reagan won the presidency for the first time, I became convinced that American politics had become indistinguishable from show business. Nothing that has happened in the intervening years has caused me to change my mind on the subject. But the phenomenon of television personalities throwing their own pseudo-political “rallies” on the National Mall in Washington certainly breaks new ground in both the political arena and the entertainment world, I have to admit.
I’m speaking, of course, about the upcoming “rallies” on the Mall thrown by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, as a response to the “rally” thrown by Glenn Beck earlier this year. I began thinking about the subject a few weeks ago, when a friend of mine asked if I would be traveling to D.C. for Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity” or Colbert’s “Rally to Restore Fear” (now combined into one giant “rally”… to restore “sane fear,” or perhaps “fearful sanity,” one assumes). Well, no. No, I won’t. Sorry about that.
Now, I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, so to speak. I certainly don’t want to annoy the fans of Stewart and Colbert, who are legion. I guess (to be scrupulously honest) that I don’t mind annoying the Beck fans, but they already seem pretty annoyed — so it’d be hard to even measure any effect my humble column would have on their level of annoyance, I suspect. But someone’s got to point out the fact that these “rallies” are nothing more than glorified commercials for television shows. Beck and Stewart and Colbert are entertainers, not politicians or even activists.
But then, so was Reagan. At least when he began. So was the current governor of the state I live in, for that matter. As well as one of my favorite members of the Senate right now. Reagan’s ascension shows that the political arena is not closed to entertainers at all, and in fact making the leap between the two is easier for those in entertainment than in most other professions, since they bring a huge asset along with them that is golden in both worlds — name recognition.
Reagan was a pioneer on this crossover pathway. He wasn’t the first entertainer to enter politics successfully, but the level of his political success was a lot greater than any who came before him. Reagan not only became governor of an important state, but he actually reached the Oval Office — something no other actor has managed to do, before or since. But that’s not to say that we can’t eventually have a President Stewart, or (shudder) a President Beck at some point. Reagan started small in politics himself — by cutting an album for the A.M.A. fighting the “Socialism” of Medicare. This effort (even though unsuccessful) gave him a taste for politics, and the rest is history.
When Reagan first got elected president, there were three television news channels. Well, technically, CNN had begun broadcasting a few months before the election, but not many people had cable at the time and other cable news did not exist. There were no blogs, no podcasts, and no world wide web. No Fox News. It was a different media universe — in fact, looking back it seems more like a media solar system than a whole media universe (or even a media galaxy). But, putting such cosmic star-gazing aside, we return to star-gazing of a different type here on Earth.
Because that’s really what these “rallies” are all about — a free, live outdoor show where you can see your favorite television star. Which is why I can’t even bring myself to stop using the “scare quotes” around the word rally when describing them. Because I don’t really consider them rallies at all, at least not how I define the word.
Glenn Beck pointedly told everyone before his “rally” that it was not going to be political (I believe there were tax-code reasons why he could not sponsor a political rally, actually, but I could be wrong), and then the collective media was shocked that he didn’t issue some sort of call to arms from the stage, and instead put on a fairly non-political show. The media could barely contain their disappointment that Beck wasn’t kidding when he said it wasn’t going to be political, because the media truly wanted to report on a carnival sideshow and were denied this opportunity.
Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert will assumably be doing their usual schtick, where “being in on the joke” is half the fun. What astounds me is that some in the media are taking it seriously, when it is so obviously not meant to be taken seriously. Deep discussions are held by Beltway insiders (who mostly don’t know what to make of this new style of “rally” yet) about why it is a good thing or a bad thing to “restore sanity” to politics — as if Stewart were serious and not poking fun at the entire political scene. Here’s a clue, for media types pondering the nuances of “restoring sanity” to politics — the other half of the “rally” is to “restore fear.” In other words, you are missing the punchline, guys.
Again, not to belittle anyone’s motive for attending the upcoming “rally,” but anyone attending for the serious purpose of “restoring sanity” is going to find themselves in the same boat as the fiscal conservative/Libertarian core of the Tea Party movement, in a way. Not ideologically, of course (perish the thought!), but in how the media presents your “cause.” Think about it — which signs do you think will make the network news from Stewart’s “rally”: the ones seriously saying “stop the yelling in politics,” or the ones with hilarious and outrageous images and slogans? I’m not saying there won’t be people seriously fed up with attack-dog politics at Stewart’s “rally” (just as there are non-racist, non-crazy people at Tea Party rallies, even if they don’t get on television much), but I don’t think that’s the image that will be broadcast to the rest of the country, that’s all.
Jon Stewart is absolutely brilliant at what he does, I should also mention. But what he does is comedy. He calls himself a comedian, which is completely honest and fitting. The problem’s not with him — it’s with everyone else. Stewart calls what he does “fake news,” but he also gets nominated for journalism awards, because he provides commentary on the news that is completely absent from the “real news” shows. He regularly (and cheerfully) points out when the Emperor has no clothes on, no matter who the Emperor happens to be at the moment. Viewers appreciate it, and not just as comedy. When polled, the public rates Stewart very highly on the “America’s most respected journalist” scale — tying or beating the biggest network “real news” anchors. There’s something very wrong with that. Not with the public so much as with what passes for “journalism” elsewhere. Stewart’s viewers, when polled, actually score very highly on their knowledge of current events as compared to viewers of other cable and non-cable news shows. Even though a comedian, Stewart is obviously informing the public better than the sensationalistic and glittery trash passing itself off as “news” on other stations. Perhaps this is because, to the viewer, watching comedic news spoofs (such as, to give another example, the “Weekend Update” segment on the Saturday Night Live comedy show) is more entertaining when you know more about what is going on — because you “get” the jokes a lot better.
And comedic commentary about the state of the nation also has a long history, even before information dissemination became all flashy and bright. Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken spring immediately to mind. Not to mention Gulliver’s Travels. So I’m not disparaging what Stewart does in the slightest and cheer on his success at the niche he’s carved out for himself in the convergence of entertainment and media, because as I said previously, the man is simply brilliant at what he does and how he does it. And Stewart may have a future in the political world, as well, if he chooses to pursue one. Senator Al Franken certainly has blazed his own pioneering path when it comes to crossing over from comedy into political office, and Stewart may eventually opt to travel this route as well.
But, in the here and now, the political world is edging a bit too close to ignoring the joke and taking all of this too seriously. I have to say I found Stephen Colbert “testifying” before a congressional committee “in character” a little puzzling. Other than perhaps Kermit The Frog, I can’t even imagine any other “character” — from anywhere — being invited to give such testimony, for any reason whatsoever. I mean, other than a photo-op for politicians, what precisely is the point?
I suppose I shouldn’t be so amazed at the concept of a television-show-sponsored “rally” on the National Mall. As I said, I’ve held this to be true for decades now: Politics has truly become indistinguishable from show business. As mentioned earlier, blogs did not exist when Reagan became president, so I have no easy way to prove that I’ve felt this way all along. I have nothing to link to, so you have no other way of knowing that’s true other than the fact that I said so. You have to take it on faith, in other words. And although I am nowhere near Stewart’s ballpark in terms of audience or influence, I also swim in the waters between comedy and journalism on occasion. Doing so and retaining an audience’s trust is an important thing, I fully realize. The main thing, as Stewart reminds anyone who will listen, is that you not take yourself too seriously. One of the high points of Stewart’s career was appearing on a supposedly “serious” political commentary show, and absolutely taking them to school on what does and what does not constitute journalism. Stewart knows the difference between what he does and “journalism,” but most people you see on television news shows simply do not understand the difference between reading the soporific pablum they do and real journalism — which was Stewart’s point.
Gil Scott-Heron may still be right in his prophesy, that “the revolution will not be televised.” Instead, there may be a new “Best Revolutionary Portrayer” reality show on television next season. But the two are not the same thing, so don’t make the mistake of blurring those lines. Indeed, some are even suggesting that the Stewart/Colbert “rally” may actually hurt the progressive movement, because it is being held so close to the upcoming election. People who feel strongly enough to travel a great distance to see Stewart and Colbert in the flesh may include people who feel strongly enough about politics to be making “get out the vote” phone calls back in their home districts. But they won’t be available that weekend, because they’ll be on the road to see Stewart and Colbert. And I bet the audience will consist of a lot more liberals and Democrats than it will of conservatives and Republicans.
This may be too harsh an assessment, though. Perhaps the people who show up are so turned off by the political machines in this country that they wouldn’t be volunteering at a Democratic “get out the vote” phone bank if Colbert and Stewart weren’t holding a “rally.” Perhaps the people who show up are just television fans of the two, and don’t normally participate (for whatever reason) in any such efforts anyway.
I’m certainly all for the concept of rallying, but that likely comes from my growing up near Washington, and being able to freely sample all the wares of political theater at an early and impressionable age. Which is why I don’t begrudge anyone their moment in the sun. I even encouraged the first Tea Party rallies, even though I didn’t agree with their aims in the slightest. I think the more Americans — no matter what their issue — exercise their First Amendment rights of peaceable assembly, the better off our country would probably be. I am unabashedly pro-rally, pro-march, and pro-demonstration, in other words. I’m even pro-“rally” as well. Get out there and exercise your rights, no matter who you are!
So it’s not like I’m advising anyone else to skip the “Rally To Restore Sanity and/or Fear.” I’m sure it’ll be a great day on the Mall. I’m sure it’ll draw a big crowd. I’m sure the entertainment will be top-notch, and the only danger will be of sides splitting from laughter. A good time is just about guaranteed for all concerned. I’m just saying that I won’t be going. Even if I were, I would be going for the giggle factor, and not to cover it as a political “rally” — because no matter how good a show Stewart and Colbert put on, I just don’t think it fits the definition.
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant