Liking Ike: Eisenhower, Advertising, and the Rise of Celebrity Politics

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Liking Ike: Eisenhower, Advertising, and the Rise of Celebrity Politics. David Haven Blake. Oxford University Press, 2016.

 

The relationship between celebrity and the presidency is a topic that has become familiar to most Americans.  During Obama’s eight years in office, he appeared on pop culture television shows, was seen socializing with professional athletes, and submitted to frequent interviews that allowed Americans to see a window into his personal life. Though Obama’s willingness to court celebrity support during his tenure was criticized by some it was clearly an electoral advantage.

During the 2012 campaign, the Republican celebrity support deficit became especially obvious when the RNC’s attempt to glamorize Mitt Romney via a Clint Eastwood primetime convention speech flopped when the legendary actor spent several minutes conversing with a chair.  Conversely, the Obama campaign provided opportunities where small donors (as little as $3 in some cases) were given the chance to spend an evening with George Clooney or Oprah.  Obama’s roster of celebrity supporters was deep, savvy, and varied as to age, field, and style.

The casual student of American politics is likely to think that, apart from Reagan, the Democrats have had a monopoly on successful celebrity politics.  From Kennedy’s famous television debate with Nixon to Clinton’s saxophone playing on the Arsenio Hall Show to the legion of Hollywood stars feeling the Bern it is easy to imagine Democrats as being the inventors and keepers of the celebrity politics tradition.

David Haven Blake’s Liking Ike, then, serves as a useful account about the beginning of the modern presidential campaign, as we have come to know it.  Blake’s reimagining of Eisenhower does not argue that Ike invented the combination of targeted advertising, celebrity endorsements, and intentional use of new media platforms as a method of campaigning, but rather that Eisenhower willingly cooperated with what would become the first campaign to use all of these things in combination to clear electoral success.

Blake begins by arguing that that America’s collective memory about how Eisenhower politicked is wrong.  Rather than a dull and distant campaigner, Eisenhower welcomed, albeit uneasily, Madison Ave. designed advertisements, televised birthday celebrations that portrayed him as a hero, and an aggressive use of cutting edge media platforms to convey his message to voters.  Far from being an obscure facet of his political life, Blake contends that the glamorization of politics that Eisenhower’s advisors engaged in was hotly debated at the time.  The connection between past and present for Blake is that anyone seeking to understand today’s politics should know of Eisenhower’s crucial “role in the making of our spectacle democracy.” (15)

One of the most notable examples of “spectacle” politics came during the 1956 reelection campaign, where Eisenhower participated in a television show that was billed as a birthday celebration, but was, in fact, a campaign rally.  Broadway dancers, famous singers, and large crowds celebrated the president on his birthday, just a few weeks before the votes would be tallied.  Additionally, Eisenhower’s team put on a late-night concert at Madison Square Garden, ran an animated commercial created by Roy Disney, and convinced Irving Berlin to compose a campaign jingle.

These celebrity endorsements were not new and were not even novel, by themselves, in Eisenhower’s era.  Franklin Roosevelt marshalled celebrity barnstorming tours where the likes of Einstein and Duke Ellington would give short speeches in favor of the president’s re-election.  What was different in the Eisenhower case, according to Blake, was that the celebrity endorsements were combined with new media and professional advertising advisors.  It was, in other words, a sophisticated advancement of the idea that a celebrity endorsement could be good for a candidate vying for the presidency.  Blake argues that in Eisenhower’s case the core purpose of these celebrity appearances was to “[help] root these many  events in good feelings rather than policy.” (101)

While popular with the American public this approach drew sharp criticism from Adlai Stevenson and his team of advisors.  One Stevenson politico decried that the Republicans of the 50s had taken to “promoting their candidates like commodities.” (104)  The implication, beyond the expected partisan bickering, was that the Republicans were happy to turn to a mode of campaigning that treated high office like a popularity contest to avoid placing their candidates in positions where they would have to engage in a rigorous policy debate.

While Blake does not address the question of whether Eisenhower has policy substance in his political repertoire he does skillfully show that the Eisenhower team’s “shrewd use of glamour” led directly to the even more successful Democratic effort to paint John Kennedy as a larger than life character who Americans could admire for his brain, his class, his wit, and his political skill.  Of course, one should note that Kennedy was much younger, more photogenic, and more at ease in front of a political microphone than Eisenhower.  Nevertheless, Blake’s argument that the Kennedy playbook was actually an adaptation of the Eisenhower playbook is convincing.

This is an important conclusion for Blake, not only because it helps us to think more deeply about an era of campaigns and about two presidents who Americans like to think they already understand, but it also sheds new light on one dimension of the development of our celebrity and glitz obsessed political culture.  “The Glamour Republic,” as Blake calls the America of today did not arise from Reagan’s jokes, Obama’s sports fandom, or Trump’s tweets, but rather these things are each outgrowths of the progression that began when Eisenhower allowed some key advisors to make conscious decisions about how his campaigns would be run.

It is this conclusion that makes Blake’s book of interest to a broader audience than students of the presidency or those interested in rhetoric.  In providing a plausible, though, certainly, not a full account of how we arrived at the politics of today Blake provides us with the opportunity to think about the potential threats to democracy that today’s glamour politics presents.  It seems to be both an enduring problem and one that crosses the partisan divide.  For every vulgar Trump tweet these days, it is easy to find a correspondingly crass comedian or actor demeaning the office of the presidency and the personhood of Trump and his supporters. We would all do well, in this environment, to meditate on the story Blake tells and to begin to reimagine how our politics can be different going forward.

John Kitch

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John Kitch received his doctorate in Political Science from Louisiana State University and is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Beloit College.