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“The Real Thing”: Election Campaigns and The Question of Authenticity in American Film and Television


This article examines the concept of authenticity in American politics through its construction and representation in fictional election campaigns in film and television. This article will posit The Candidate (1972), Tanner '88 (1988), Wag the Dog (1997) and The West Wing (1999–2006) as crucial sites of popular cultural critique of this aspect of the electoral process: The Candidate as a damning critique of television's influence, Tanner '88 as a satirical take on campaign films in the Reagan era, Wag the Dog as a savage indictment of spin-doctoring during Clinton's presidency, and The West Wing's attempt to rescue the process through the construction of an “authentic” political candidate. This involves close textual analysis of the four examples identified, examining the contrasting visual styles, strategies and tones. The textual discussions will not take place in isolation, however: this article will chart the simultaneous developments in real-world electoral politics, with particular focus on the influence of the media in the election campaigns contemporaneous with the fictional examples discussed. The article charts a shift in the representation of political authenticity, from a cynical attitude towards its possibility in the 1970s, to an uncomplicated reversion to traditional markers of this elusive concept in the 2000s.

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1 Parry-Giles Shawn J. and Parry-Giles Trevor, Constructing Clinton: Hyperreality and Presidential Image-Making in Postmodern Politics (New York: Peter Lang, 2002), 125 .

2 Edwards Janis L., “Presidential Campaign Cartoons and Political Authenticity,” in Denton Robert E., ed., The 2008 Presidential Campaign: A Communication Perspective (Plymouth: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2009), 191209 , 194.

3 Parry-Giles and Parry-Giles, 122.

4 For a broad view of this history see Lora Ronald and Longton William H., eds., The Conservative Press in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century America (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1999).

5 Eugene Robinson argued that Romney's wealth precluded him from being an authentic presence on the campaign trail, as it rendered him incapable of identifying with ordinary people and coming across as a “real person.” Eugene Robinson, in The Washington Post, 2 March 2012, at, accessed April 2012. Romney's infamous, secretly filmed, comments that 47% of Americans automatically vote for the Democrats because they think they are entitled to government handouts confirmed to many that Romney was a typical politician who said one thing in public and another in private. The implications of these ideas and incidents are part of what this article looks to establish about political authenticity.

6 Stephen Poole, “Why Are We so Obsessed with the Pursuit of Authenticity?”, New Statesman, 7 March 2013, at, accessed March 2013. Much of Poole's argument appears influenced by Jean Baudrillard's infamous intervention in 1981, in which he argued that any distinction between the “real” and the “represented” had collapsed as a result of mediation and manipulation. It is arguable that the rise of digital technology, whereby the relationship between the signifier and the signified has become even more eroded, has provoked a similar crisis of authenticity. See Baudrillard Jean, Simulacra/Simulation (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994).

7 Benjamin Walter, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (London: Penguin Books, 2008; first published 1936), 7.

8 Taylor Charles, The Ethics of Authenticity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), 6.

9 Morreale Joanne, The Presidential Campaign Film: A Critical History (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1993), xi.

10 Scott Ian, American Politics in Hollywood Film (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000), 68.

11 The origins of film and television's search for authenticity in politics arguably lie in Frank Capra's films produced during the Great Depression. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Meet John Doe (1941) established a populist pattern: while individuals working within the system tend to be corrupt and self-serving, the system itself was a benign entity merely searching for a figure of exceptional character to return it to its righteous path. Both films are concerned in one way or another with the issue of authenticity: Mr. Smith and Meet John Doe demonstrate how the folksy simplicity of its protagonists is exploited by the political establishment to disguise their nefarious behind-the-scenes machinations. In keeping with Capra's populist credentials, Smith and Doe, emerging from outside the political machine, possess the unvarnished quality that enables them to wrest control from these malignant forces, and reassert values of truth, honesty and integrity in American politics. Capra picked these ideas up in his later State of the Union (1948), in which Grant Matthews (Spencer Tracy), an industrialist picked to run for President, attempts to project authenticity by sticking to his beliefs rather than bowing to the wants of the party machine. The process ultimately defeats him, however, and he withdraws his candidacy. The contours of Capra's approach to American politics are explored in greater detail in Muscio Giuliana, Hollywood's New Deal (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996); Richards Jeffrey, “Frank Capra and the Cinema of Populism,” in Nichols Bill, ed., Movies and Methods (London: University Press, 1976), 6577 ; Gehring Wes D., “Pushing the Capra Envelope: Hero ,” Journal of Popular Film and Television, 23 (Spring 1995), 3643 ; Lindholm Charles and Hall John A., “Frank Capra Meets John Doe: Anti-politics in American National Identity,” in Hjort Mette and Mackenzie Scott, eds., Cinema and Nation (London: Routledge, 2000), 3442 ; Neve Brian, Film and Politics in America: A Social Tradition (London: Routledge, 1992), 2854 .

12 It is important to note the obvious differences between the four texts chosen – The Candidate and Wag the Dog are feature films, Tanner '88 a miniseries, and The West Wing a long-running serial drama. The possibility for a television show to develop depth and character over a period of time is obviously greater than for a stand-alone film.

13 Wide-ranging analysis of the evolution of the relationship between television and politics can be found in MacNeil Robert, The People Machine: The Influence of Television on American Politics (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1970); Mickelson Sig, From Whistle Stop to Sound Bite: Four Decades of Politics and Television (London: Praeger, 1989); Hart Roderick P., Seducing America: How Television Charms the Modern Voter (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994). Furthermore, Raymond Williams's suggestion that the mass-mediated performance fundamentally altered a society used only to occasional encounters with dramatic or theatrical performance is an instructive one in relation to electoral politics. Williams Raymond, Television: Technology and Cultural Form (London: Fontana, 1974), 125 .

14 White Theodore, America in Search of Itself: The Making of the President 1956–1980 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1983), 167.

15 According to MacNeil, Franklin D. Roosevelt's “Fireside Chats” proved crucial to his reelection in 1936. Opposed by 90% of newspapers, Roosevelt employed the radio as a means of cultivating an intimate, personal relationship with the electorate. Of course, the development of this relationship did not occur automatically – Roosevelt placed great emphasis on honing his performance for the radio, training his voice and perfecting his timing as he sought an affective (as well as rhetorical) relationship with the electorate. See MacNeil, 131; and Raphael Timothy, The President Electric: Ronald Reagan and the Politics of Performance (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2009), 93.

16 MacNeil, 140, my emphasis.

17 Bruzzi Stella, New Documentary, 2nd edn (London: Routledge, 2006), 184.

18 Edelman Murray, Constructing the Political Spectacle (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988), 59.

19 Away from the media spotlight, it would appear obvious who is the more “authentic” candidate: while Kennedy was part of an extraordinarily wealthy family with connections in Washington, DC, and benefited from his father's largesse in his campaigns for the House of Representatives and the Senate, Nixon, whose father was a service station owner and a grocer, was a self-made man from a very ordinary background.

20 MacNeil, 126–30.

21 White, quoted in ibid,, 138.

22 Quoted in Schroeder Alan, Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High-Risk TV (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 99. This is a notion further explored by Umberto Eco, who analysed Nixon's televised speech from 30 April 1973 (in which he denied any personal involvement in the Watergate Scandal), to demonstrate how the camera's capturing of the president's facial tics revealed that he was lying. Eco Umberto, “Strategies of Lying,” in Blonsky Marshall, ed., On Signs (Oxford: Blackwell, 1985), 311 .

23 Plissner Martin, The Control Room: How Television Calls the Shots in Presidential Elections (New York: The Free Press, 1999), 3.

24 Boorstin Daniel, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (New York: Atheneum, 1985), 11.

25 It is important to acknowledge that this cynicism was not new – The Best Man (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1964), based on Gore Vidal's play, examines the seamy underbelly of the nomination process in American politics, exposing the lengths to which politicians will go in order to win power. It is crucial to note, however, that the film (and play) take aim at the process itself, rather than the media's influence upon it, suggesting that cynicism regarding the media's influence had not reached the saturation levels they would by the early 1970s. As Bruce Schulman argues, in the 1970s “Americans developed a deeper, more thorough suspicion of the instruments of public life and a more profound disillusionment with the corruption and inefficiency of public institutions,” a feeling of disenchantment expressed clearly in The Candidate. Schulman Bruce, The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture (New York: Free Press, 2001), xv.

26 Hart, Seducing America, 13.

27 Hampton Howard, “See How They Run,” Film Comment, 44, 5 (2008), 3034 , 31.

28 However, it is telling that Altman, an auteur of the New Hollywood in the 1970s, would retreat to the smaller confines of cable television in the following decade during a period in which American cinema became considerably more conservative: the home of explicit critiques of American politics and society was no longer the feature film (as it had been in the previous decade), but the documentary and the television mini-series.

29 Quoted in Keathley Christian, “Trapped in the Affection Image: Hollywood's Post Traumatic Cycle (1970–1976),” in Elsaesser Thomas, Horwath Alexander and King Noel, eds., The Last Great American Picture Show: New Hollywood Cinema in the 1970s (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2004), 293308 , 297.

30 Morreale Joanne, “ Tanner '88 ,” in Edgerton Gary and Jones Jeffrey, eds., The Essential HBO Reader (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2008), 103–15, 109.

31 Ibid., 106–7.

32 Raphael, The President Electric, 2.

33 Like Bush's 1988 campaign film, Morreale argues that this recycling of archive footage ignores current problems, and “returns viewers to the nostalgic site of a former, successfully met challenge,” whether or not the candidate had anything directly to do with this resolution. Morreale, 162.

34 Ibid., 151.

35 Parry-Giles and Parry-Giles, Constructing Clinton, 119.

36 In August 1998, as Clinton was due to testify under oath to Kenneth Starr's investigation into whether the president had had an inappropriate relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, he ordered attacks on terrorist training camps in Sudan following the bombing of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. According to Tom Stempel, Clinton was immediately excoriated by the Republican Party and the press for “‘wagging the dog.’ The title of the film had become part of the language, and it was used to beat up on Clinton.” Stempel Tom, “The Collaborative Dog: Wag the Dog (1997),” Film and History, 35, 1 (2005), 6064 , 63.

37 Morreale, 164.

38 Mast Jason L., The Performative Presidency: Crisis and Resurrection during the Clinton Years (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 43.

39 Ibid.

40 Parry-Giles Shawn and Parry-Giles Trevor, “Meta-Imaging, The War Room, and the Hyperreality of U. S. Politics,” Journal of Communication, 49, 1 (1999), 2845 , 28.

41 Bruzzi, New Documentary, 172.

42 Parry-Giles and Parry-Giles, “Meta-Imaging,” 29.

43 This process of coopting the traditional markers of authenticity as a disguise for unpleasant policies and ideas is also explored in Bob Roberts (Tim Robbins, 1992), a mockumentary in which a Republican singer with designs on a seat in the Senate uses folk music, a genre associated with agrarian, homespun honesty, to sell his reactionary policies to the electorate, and disguise his corruption and mendacity.

44 Neve Brian, “Frames of Presidential and Candidate Politics in American Films of the 1990s,” The Public, 7, 2 (2000), 1932 , 27.

45 Lehmann Chris, “The Feel-Good Presidency: The Psuedo-Politics of The West Wing ,” in Rollins Peter C. and O'Connor John E., eds., The West Wing: The American Presidency as Television Drama (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2003), 213–22, 215.

46 McCabe Janet, The West Wing (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2012), 9596 . The programme did, however, respond to 9/11 and the “war on terror” through changes in its visual style and tone. This is explored briefly in ibid., at 59–83; and throughout Parry-Giles Shawn and Parry-Giles Trevor's The Prime-Time Presidency: The West Wing and U. S. Nationalism (Chicago: The University of Illinois Press, 2006); and it forms the basis of chapter 4 of my own book The American President in Film and Television: Myth, Politics and Representation (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2014).

47 Orvell Miles, The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture 1880–1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), xvi.

48 Jonathan Freedland, “From West Wing to Real Thing,” The Guardian, 21 Feb. 2008, at, accessed Aug. 2011.

49 For an explication of the supposed “similarities” between Obama and Santos see Kellner Douglas, Cinema Wars: Hollywood Film and Politics in the Bush–Cheney Era (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 37; a compelling and thorough investigation into the political problematics of the “post-racial” is developed in Frank David A. and McPhail Mark Lawrence, “Barack Obama's Address to the Democratic National Convention: Trauma, Compromise, Consilience, and the (Im)possibility of Racial Reconciliation,” Rhetoric and Public Affairs, 8, 4 (2005), 571–93.

50 Barack Obama, “A More Perfect Union,” 18 March 2008, at, accessed Oct. 2013.

51 This was by no means a new strategy, as the “Outsider” construction has been consistently employed by candidates looking to challenge an entrenched establishment that has proved itself at best incompetent, and at worst untrustworthy: Jimmy Carter cultivated a populist, antipolitics image in 1976 in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, while Ronald Reagan's antigovernment stance in 1980 to unseat Carter was cut from similar cloth. Much of Kennedy's appeal to the electorate in 1960 was grounded in the cultivation of a similar identity.

52 In October 2002, Barack Obama described any intervention in Iraq as a “dumb war.” “Transcript: Obama's Speech against The Iraq War,” 2 Oct. 2002, at, accessed Oct. 2013.

53 Edwards, “Presidential Campaign Cartoons and Political Authenticity,” 196.

54 This strategy is explored in Kenski Kate, Hardy Bruce W. and Jamieson Kathleen Hall, The Obama Presidency: How Media, Money and Message Shaped the 2008 Election (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 1326 .

55 Edwards, 196.

56 Shawn Parry-Giles quoted by Edwards, 195.

57 Morreale, “Tanner '88,” 2.

58 Jacobs Jason, The Intimate Screen: Early Television Drama (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

59 The form, style and performance of authenticity here approximates what Paddy Scannell describes as “believability” in broadcasting. Scannell Paddy, Radio, Television and Modern Life (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), 111.

60 Wallace Nicolle and Dunn Anita, “Electing the President 2008: The Insiders' View,” in Graber Doris A., ed., Media Power in Politics, 6th edn (Washington, DC: The CQ Press, 2011), 217–24.

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