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The Oprahization of presidential politics
Statesman ^ | 12/8/03 | Bob Dart

Posted on 12/08/2003 10:13:44 AM PST by Tumbleweed_Connection

One Democratic presidential candidate talks about his prostate cancer in a campaign TV spot. Several recall openly that they smoked marijuana, and another says "sorry" in admitting that he hasn't.

Their stump chatter touches on grief counseling or how a family deals with a married daughter coming out as gay. America has learned that the death of a beloved teenage son reshaped one candidate's perceptions and that the miraculous healing of a toddler son altered another's priorities. Confession, tears and emotion have become campaign strategies.

The "Oprahization" of politics has escalated during the Democratic presidential primary season.

The candidates "want to grab the hearts of the nation. They've taken the pulse of national culture and have seen that it has worked for Oprah (and her TV guests)," said Robert Thompson, president of the National Popular Culture Association and a professor at Syracuse University.

"They've come to the idea that you can get a lot of mileage out of appearing to be completely frank, completely open," he said. "And given the zeitgeist of the nation, it's probably not a bad strategy."

It is a political strategy for a presidential campaign in which baby boomer candidates are running in a confessional culture characterized by cynicism, celebrity and reality TV, Thompson says., an online dictionary of the rapidly evolving English language, defines Oprahization (oh-pruh-eye-ZAY-shun) as "the increased tendency for people to publicly describe their feelings and emotions and confess their past indiscretions."

That seems to explain Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., opening a new campaign commercial by earnestly telling potential voters: "A few months ago, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer." The pitch is for Kerry's version of health care reform.

Plugging his own health care plan, Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., emotionally recalls his son Matt's medical victory over cancer nearly three decades ago.

Oprahization also describes the confessional gush at the CNN "Rock the Vote" forum last month, when moderator Anderson Cooper asked the assembled candidates, "Which of you are ready to admit having used marijuana in the past?"

Three baby boomer candidates -- Kerry, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C. -- promptly admitted that they had. Gephardt wasn't there, retired Gen. Wesley Clark said "no" and former Sen. Carol Mosley Braun, D-Ill., declined to answer. Other candidates felt compelled to explain their negative responses.

"Well, you know, I have a reputation for giving unpopular answers at Democratic debates," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn. "I never used marijuana. Sorry."

"I grew up in the church. We didn't do that," said the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, said he hadn't indulged, "but I think it ought to be decriminalized."

Kucinich has another pop-culture niche in the Democratic field as the only candidate to eschew meat. He is a vegan, as ready to expound on a healthy diet as on foreign policy in his talk-show appearances.

'The sense of intimacy'

Politics have turned personal because society demanded it.

"It's absolutely a product of our times, a product of a therapeutic bent in our culture, and a product of people wanting to get a sense of who the person really is that we put into the White House," said Stanley Renshon, a political scientist and psychoanalyst at City University of New York.

The Democratic presidential hopefuls "are striving for the sense of intimacy" with potential voters, Renshon said. "But there is a question of whether you can have that kind of real intimacy with what they're doing and with the people they are."

Even though the candidates might achieve only what Renshon calls pseudo-intimacy, the electoral process has changed. Politics are different from when the public was shielded from the knowledge of Franklin Roosevelt's crippling polio and wheelchair. Or when Edmund Muskie's tears doomed his presidential bid. Or when Thomas Eagleton was knocked off the Democratic ticket as George McGovern's running mate when it was learned that he had undergone shock treatment for depression.

"Stoicism was the standard for generations of American politicians, many of whom kept physical and emotional troubles under wraps," observed Ron Fournier, a veteran political writer for The Associated Press. "But Watergate and Vietnam left Americans wanting to know more about the inner workings of their leaders."

Except for Gephardt and Lieberman, who are slightly older, the Democratic candidates all fall within the post-World War II baby boom generation, widely defined as having been born between 1946 and 1964.

"Every individual is shaped by the history that he or she lived through during their formative years," said Ann Fishman, president of Generational Targeted Marketing Corp. in New Orleans.

Baby boomers grew up pampered by the lenient child-rearing philosophy of Dr. Spock but competitive amid crowded classrooms. They grew to mistrust authority during the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal. They experimented with drugs and alternative lifestyles. They have become the Sandwich Generation, squeezed between providing for college-age children and elderly parents.

Unlike their parents' Greatest Generation, which survived the Great Depression, defeated Hitler and built America into the world's superpower, baby boomers grew up with a sense of entitlement. They have been called the Me Generation and disparaged as whiny by subsequent generations X and Y.

A new level

Emotion and confession are not new to presidential politics, of course. Richard Nixon gained sympathy with his televised, tearful "Checkers speech" but reaped only scorn and disbelief when he later proclaimed "I am not a crook." Baby boomers Al Gore and George W. Bush actually went on Oprah Winfrey's talk show during the 2000 campaign. Bill Clinton confessed, sort of, to marital infidelity on "60 Minutes" in the 1992 campaign.

But personal politics are reaching a new level in the Democratic campaign. Dean tells about going through grief therapy and anxiety attacks after his brother's disappearance in Southeast Asia. Charles Dean's remains were recently found.

Gephardt talks about his lesbian daughter, Chrissy, coming out in the spring of 2001 and about the fear and worry of having a child nearly die from cancer. Edwards has acknowledged how the death of his 16-year-old son, Wade, altered his life.

Lieberman pushes his 89-year-old mother in a wheelchair as he campaigns. Clark gets teary-eyed when he talks about children being killed during his military service in Kosovo.

On the lighter side of personal politics, Kucinich, a twice-divorced bachelor and friend of movie star Shirley MacLaine, has caught the fancy of online females who are vying for a date on a Web site called Kucinich put out a casual call for his ideal first lady at a televised candidate forum.

Combining confession and celebrity, Sharpton talks of his broken home, where his father ran off with young Al's half-sister and how soul singer James Brown became his father figure.

"I call it the `politics of reassurance,' " said Renshon, whose books include "The Psychological Assessment of Presidential Candidates" and "Political Psychology: Cultural and Cross-Cultural Foundations."

The candidates are "trying to reassure the public that they are human, they are regular, they are aware of life's ups and down. That they are one of us, essentially," Renshon said. "The reality of it is, they are not one of us. The number of people who want to be president and spend their adult lives trying to get it is really quite small."

The campaign goes on against a backdrop of cynicism, said Thompson, whose books include "Prime Time, Prime Movers." Politicians, lawyers and media people top the mistrust polls, he noted, and there is widespread belief that "when you scratch the surface, you see lies."

Thompson sees confessional politics as "the most useful model to appear like you are being honest." From Clinton to Arnold Schwarzenegger, politicians "have seen how mea culpas, when done effectively, not only get you out of trouble" but help promote your popularity and perceived trustworthiness.

TOPICS: Politics/Elections
KEYWORDS: 2004; apolitics; emotional; intimate; oprah

1 posted on 12/08/2003 10:13:48 AM PST by Tumbleweed_Connection
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To: Tumbleweed_Connection
Their next step will be an all-out Springer episode, complete with allegations of in-breeding, video-tapes, and an all-out brawl.

I can hardly wait!!! :-)

2 posted on 12/08/2003 10:22:40 AM PST by theDentist (Liberals can sugarcoat sh** all they want. I'm not biting.)
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To: Tumbleweed_Connection
Post 9/11, the touchy-feely crap will no longer work.
3 posted on 12/08/2003 10:43:18 AM PST by ikka
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To: theDentist
i think that's a great idea. they could use it as the format of one of the debates. jerry springer could host it and ask the questions.


This could be really good for politics!
4 posted on 12/08/2003 11:04:36 AM PST by drhogan
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To: ikka
Post 9/11, the touchy-feely crap will no longer wor

You'd think. But apparently, the criminally ignorant soccer clods need a refresher incident.

5 posted on 12/08/2003 12:07:16 PM PST by ctonious
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To: Tumbleweed_Connection
CF, Anne Coulter, "The Party of Ideas"
6 posted on 12/08/2003 12:09:48 PM PST by Lonesome in Massachussets (Uday and Qusay and Idi-ay are ead-day)
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