Some 40 years ago, author Joe McGinniss shined a light on the way campaign imagery shapes our perceptions of politics with his The Selling of the President about Richard Nixon’s 1968 run for office. Though aimed at the evil geniuses behind the “new Nixon” who beat Hubert Humphrey, one of the most famous lines in the book recounted the way Nixon’s old nemesis John Kennedy had beguiled the American people with a White House that was sold as a new Camelot. As McGinniss put it: “We forgave, followed and accepted because we liked the way he looked. And he had a pretty wife. Camelot was fun, even for the peasants, as long as it was televised to their huts.”
American politics was played by different rules from 1961 to 1963. The image of the handsome young president, his beautiful wife, and their two adorable children was ubiquitous in American culture in those years, and the publication or broadcast of unpleasant truths about the president and his brother the attorney general was simply out of the question. Since then, no American president has received the same kid glove treatment from the press. Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, the first Bush, Clinton, and the second Bush were all treated with little deference and much cynicism by the media.
But the election of the first African-American president in 2008 has changed the way the presidency is treated in popular culture. In the past two years, the images coming out of Barack Obama’s White House of the handsome young president, his beautiful wife, and two adorable daughters have been highly reminiscent of Kennedy’s Camelot imagery. That’s a big part of the reason why, despite the administration’s well-documented troubles in selling its hyper-liberal policies to the public, Obama’s personal popularity remains high.
Part of Obama’s dream machine was highlighted yesterday in a puff piece in The New York Times about Arun Chaudhary, the former New York University film instructor who is Obama’s full-time videographer. Chaudhary’s “West Wing Week” films may not be sweeping the nation, but they are part of the way the president’s personal image — and that of his family — have been carefully burnished. The midterm elections illustrated the rejection of Obama’s political agenda by the voters. But anyone who thinks that the 2012 election, in which the president will be personally on the ballot, will not be heavily influenced by the Camelot factor is not paying attention. With such loving images of Obama being beamed out regularly — not merely to our huts but to the peasantry’s computers, iPads, and phones — the task of defeating even a president whose policies are unpopular will be that much harder. Obama’s Camelot may not be impregnable, but it is buttressed by the sort of stained-glass image that has not been seen since the days of John Kennedy.