It might be the most shocking moment of Hillary’s campaign: Clinton can tell a joke.
The former Secretary of State recently appeared on Zach Galifianakis’ "Between Two Ferns,” a mock interview show in which the comedian berates his guests with a myriad of absurd questions. When “Star Wars” vet Natalie Portman dropped by the Funny or Die series in 2009, Galifianakis — befitting his buffoonish character — asked if Chewbacca speaks English. About her role in “V for Vendetta,” for which Portman shaved her head, he inquired, “Did you also shave your V for vagina?” Galifianakis would elsewhere pronounce Charlize Theron’s name wrong, while also mistakenly believing that she won an Oscar for Pixar’s “Monsters Inc.” as opposed to “Monster.”
When interviewing Clinton, Galifianakis shows up late and airs an ad for Donald Trump during the middle of the segment, explaining that he was paid in steaks. “I’d be afraid to eat them if I were you,” Clinton quips. Galifianakis gamely responds, “I think it’s part of the asshole.”
The nearly six-minute segment was a huge win for the former First Lady during a difficult time in her campaign, showing the candidate to be self-effacing and a good sport in the face of jabs that played extremely close to the bone. When Galifianakis suggests the two stay in touch following the interview, he asks Clinton what's the best way to reach her: “Email?” In recent weeks, continued questions over her use of a private email server while Secretary of State have dragged down Clinton’s poll numbers — at their lowest point in months. FiveThirtyEight has Hillary leading her challenger, Donald Trump, by just 2.1 percentage points in its current forecast. If the election were held today, she stands just a 59 percent chance of winning.
If the race is much closer than anyone expected, part of the problem is the lack of enthusiasm amongst millennials when it comes to voting for Hillary Clinton. In 2008, Barack Obama won a record 66 percent of the coveted youth vote. Clinton, according to a recent Quinnipiac survey, is polling at less than half that share — just 31 percent. In a four-way race, she leads Gary Johnson, the libertarian candidate, by just two percent.
Mr. Obama, more than any other presidential candidate in history, succeeded in translating his political campaign into a lifestyle brand, one that sold the candidate as the “hip” choice to an audience of young, digitally engaged voters. In embracing — and mastering — the art of infotainment, Obama fundamentally changed what it means to run for office and what it means to govern. Harnessing that “it” factor has been a struggle for Clinton’s campaign, but the “Between Two Ferns” interview shows she might be finally finding her groove.
And that's what's worrisome.
Clinton shouldn’t have to prove to us that she is cool enough to get elected. She simply needs to convey that most unsexy and elusive of qualities: that she is capable and ready to do her job.
Barack Obama is often referred to by his critics as the “entertainer-in-chief.” When John McCain ran against him in 2008, the Arizona Republican’s most popular attack ad suggested that Obama was no more than another celebutante, likening him to Paris Hilton or Britney Spears. “He’s the biggest celebrity in the world,” the commercial warned.
Obama has certainly been a staple of the media circuit during his eight years in office. He was the first sitting president to appear on a late night talk show when he chatted with Jay Leno in 2009. Obama later slow-jammed the news with Jimmy Fallon and danced with Ellen DeGeneres. A close friend of Jon Stewart’s, the current president has been a guest on “The Daily Show” seven times. Obama has also appeared on Jerry Seinfeld's “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” “Running Wild With Bear Grylls,” “The View,” and “WTF with Marc Maron,” making him the first POTUS to be interviewed on a podcast. Most recently, Barack and Michelle were featured in a romantic, low-lit photoshoot for Essence, which celebrated black love in the White House.
To dismiss this as frivolity, however, is to underestimate how well Obama has translated his political message to popular media. While chowing down on campfire salmon with Bear Grylls, Obama discussed the effects of climate change on the natural landscape. His Marc Maron interview offered an unflinching look at racial inequality in modern-day America. "Racism, we are not cured of it,” Obama famously remarked. “And it's not just a matter of it not being polite to say nigger in public.” Even on Fallon, the president addressed the economy and health care.
Twenty-four years after Clinton played the sax on “The Arsenio Hall Show,” the demands of running for office have transformed dramatically. In an political era where voters want to pledge their allegiance to a guy they want to have a beer with, politicians have to learn how to look cool—like someone who shares both your values and maybe your taste in music.
When hosting the White House Correspondents’ dinner in 2012, Obama joked, “In my first term, I sang Al Green. In my second term, I’m going with Young Jeezy.” Four years later, his Spotify playlist has become a staple of the summer season. His personal collection, however, has proven to be a bit more conservative than his Jeezy reference would suggest, blending a Baby Boomer-era definition of what constitutes quality with contemporary indie and R&B. His 2016 tracklist features tunes from Nina Simone, Courtney Barnett, The Beach Boys, Janelle Monáe, and Charles Mingus. The previous year’s selections included The Rolling Stones and Bob Marley.
That influence has had a profound impact on the 2016 race. John Kasich, as noted by the New Yorker’s Hua Shu, casually expressed his love of early aughts nü metal during a campaign stop on his failed bid for the presidency. The Ohio Governor, sighing that he hadn’t been to his home state in many moons, said, “It’s killing me I’m not going to see Linkin Park in a couple weeks.”
Shu was initially taken aback by this statement. “He was offering his vision for a better America,” he writes, “and I couldn’t move past the fact that he probably knew who Chester Bennington was.”
Kasich’s statement, though, little to do with whether he is a fan of “Hybrid Theory” or rocks out to “In the End.” The Republican politician may not actually like Linkin Park, but he hoped to appeal to the kind of person who does: middle- to lower-class Americans who live in flyover states (most prominently Arizona). More than anything, it’s a nostalgia play: The California-based band reached its peak of popularity during Bush’s first term in office, when the U.S. economy had yet to be hobbled by a banking crisis that left millions of Americans without jobs, feeling disenfranchised. These are the voters who have, thus far, expressed support for Donald Trump’s campaign.
This is often referred to as “showbiz politics,” using popular culture to bolster political appeal. A famous example is when Harry Truman, then vice president, played the piano for the National Press Club on Feb. 10, 1945—with Lauren Bacall elegantly positioned atop the instrument. After Truman succeeded Franklin Delano Roosevelt just two months later, the actress’ star power would become so associated with his image that Bacall and her husband, Humphrey Bogart, would stump for Truman during his successful bid for reelection three years later.
Fast forward to 2016, and showbiz strategy is increasingly imporant. The late-night talk show circuit has become an almost mandatory part of the campaign. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, the GOP hopeful who tore up the tax code for clickbait, has appeared on “The Daily Show,” “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” “Real Time With Bill Maher,” and “The Nightly Show.” Machine gun-bacon lover Ted Cruz sat for Jimmy Kimmel and Seth Meyers. Donald Trump is a regular on “The Tonight Show,” where he and Jimmy Fallon play kissy-face. Instead of discussing Trump’s noted history of racism and hate speech, Fallon most recently chatted with the billionaire CEO about his childhood home.
Hillary Clinton, given her three decades as a lawyer, First Lady, Junior Senator, and Secretary of State, has proven herself to be good at politics. She, however, has never excelled at showbiz.
Take her October 2015 appearance on “Saturday Night Live.” In the cold open, Clinton plays a bartender named Val against Kate McKinnon’s version of HRC — a woman who cannot understand why voters don’t like her. Clinton is stiff and forced, looking slightly to the left as if she’s reading off cue cards. Obama has displayed crack comic timing throughout his presidency, dubbed the “first alt-comedy president,” but Clinton simply doesn’t have the same instincts. Her attempts at levity, like that tone-deaf “colored people time” joke and groan-inducing Pokémon Go quip, come off like her own Onion parody.
Clinton knows the power of cool to transform a politician’s persona. After losing out on the Democratic nomination in 2008, Texts From Hillary made her more popular than ever. Clinton’s approval rating soared to over 60 percent. In the 2012 meme, Clinton is pictured texting in an airplane hangar with sunglasses on, playing into the idea that she’s an “ice queen,” ala Miranda Priestly in “The Devil Wears Prada.” An HBIC who gives no fucks, Hillary is simply too busy running the world to bother with whatever tomfoolery is going on around her. During the 2016 election, the closest Clinton has come to reliving her days of viral badassery was during a Twitter exchange with Trump; she once instructed her rival to “delete [his] account.”
Clinton the candidate, however, is at her best when she doesn’t play to our tastes at all. Whereas Obama favors savvier television shows like “The Wire” and “Breaking Bad,” both hallmarks of the Golden Age of Television, Hillary’s emails revealed that she likes “The Good Wife” and “Parks and Recreation.” These programs are the exact kinds of shows a career Baby Boomer politician would enjoy — ones that resonate with her own experience in Washington. She watches TV for herself, not for us.
What makes Clinton compelling is something that her campaign has attempted to hide: She’s a bureaucrat. Hillary excels not at appealing to the cultural peccadillos of the creative class, despite her campaign being headquartered in Brooklyn, but the nitty-gritty of governance. In 2008, Clinton ran on her extensive résumé, a career that has spanned decades in public life. That message, of putting experience first, hasn't proven enticing to voters six years later, and it's made this race more of a nail-biter than anyone expected. Trump hasn’t the slightest clue about running a country, but he knows what makes for great television.
Hillary Clinton will never be cool, but her very lack of chill remains her greatest virtue.