On June 3, 1992, presidential aspirant Bill Clinton, wearing cool-daddy shades and a groovy tie and wielding a mighty sax, opened The Arsenio Hall Show with a squawky version of Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel”—it drove the studio audience crazy-pants. Having mortified himself as keynote speaker at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, when he jabbered at such length that his wrap-up words “In closing … ” were greeted with mocking cheers, Clinton let his yakety sax do the talking, making it known that Elvis was in the building.
It proved more than a personal political triumph; it blew a hole through the paper-mache walls between stodgy traditional politics and the bold new shameless go-go club of infotainment. Clinton on Arsenio made it possible for Barack Obama to appear on Between Two Ferns without everyone getting a goiter, for ABC’s The View to become a routine campaign stop and schmoozing depot.
Get a Little Funkadelic
No platform is better suited for letting candidates bypass the accreditation process of legacy media and the hokey rituals of retail campaigning—being photographed at the Iowa State Fair poking a corn dog in your mouth—than the humble, motley podcast. It especially benefits challengers and insurgents. President Trump, that guy doesn’t need podcasts to sling his slop bucket; the bully pulpit of his presidency has Fox News and Twitter to do the dirty job. But with, at last count, 287 Democratic hopefuls in the race, many of them wearing name tags so that that they can identify themselves in the mirror, podcasts offer a feast of opportunities to depart from the stump speech and get a little funkadelic.
It is Kamala Harris who has made the boldest reach for the brass ring. Or should I say Fruit Loop? Harris was the featured guest on the Season Two opener of The Ron Burgundy Podcast. Yes, that Ron Burgundy, the swinger-mustached local-news legend of the Anchorman movies, who thought “diversity” referred to an old wooden ship. It is alleged that Ron Burgundy is a character performed by Will Ferrell in a roguish turtleneck, but I prefer to think of Ron as a real person, a dented vanity plate of a man unstuck in time. Kibitzing with his co-host, Carolina Barlow, before the Harris interview, Burgundy confided that he was toying with the idea of tossing away his prep notes and winging it.
“Please do not do that,” said Barlow, whose deadpan Aubrey Plaza affect lightly pebbled with quiet exasperation makes her an ideal millennial foil for Burgundy’s doofus aplomb.
I prefer to think of Ron Burgundy as a real person, a dented vanity plate of a man unstuck in time.
Once the episode got rolling, Burgundy laid his shtick on peanut-butter smooth, his interjections perfectly cued, as when Harris listed some of her political heroes—Shirley Chisholm, Robert Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, and Jerry Brown—and Burgundy rebuked, “Someone I’m surprised that you left off the list, may he rest in peace, Sonny Bono.”
Harris acquitted herself well. She had a tricky balancing act to perform: gamely going along with the buffoonery without getting overly facetious or quippy—of contemporary politicians, only Obama possesses pinpoint drop-needle comic delivery—while being nimble enough to pivot into a Serious Policy Discussion without wrenching anything. Harris’s guest appearance provided a visibility boost for her candidacy, given extra oomph by Farrell’s—I mean Burgundy’s—lightning round of talk-show appearances to promote Season Two, where he debuted his stand-up act for Colbert, Fallon, Kimmel, and the other tiki idols of late night.
But was it a catalytic occasion, a viral flash point for the Harris campaign? A mild “nuh” to that. It didn’t generate any sound bites or memes to provoke a media ripple. It advanced the ball but didn’t change the game.
An Unhurried, Unhectic Forum
Bernie Sanders shuffled into what many on the left consider hostile territory by having a sit-down with alpha podcaster Joe Rogan, whose bumptious reputation was clinically examined in a previous column (August 10, 2019). I thought this was a smart play on both their parts. Hosting a top-tier candidate in his studio boosted Rogan’s mainstream cred—whether Rogan craves mainstream cred is a different eel altogether—and it did Sanders a large sum of good to be able to lay out his positions in an unhurried, unhectic forum that didn’t compel him to rush his delivery or raise his voice as if trying to beat a countdown clock.
Shunning the YouTube broadcast of the interview and listening to it on earbuds as nature intended, I spared myself the Wagging Finger of Remonstration that has become Bernie’s personal baton. Consequently, he came across as less shouty, less hectoring, less old man yelling at a cloud, patiently critiquing the expense of health care and college tuition with compassion and frustration. It was the most attractive I’ve heard Sanders, and I appreciated his assuring Rogan that if he becomes president he’ll provide the American people with a status report on government findings regarding U.F.O.’s and extraterrestrial visitors. Some pundits scoffed at this, but I personally would like to know if gray hybrids and Zeta Reticulans walk among us and are planning a takeover, just so I can be on the “lookout.”
Listening to the interview on earbuds as nature intended, I spared myself the Wagging Finger of Remonstration that has become Bernie’s personal baton.
The podcast format also proved an excellent perch for Elizabeth Warren, profiled by Rebecca Traister for The Cut on Tuesdays. This was not a studio visit. Traister and producer Sarah McVeigh interviewed Warren over tea in her Cambridge home, all very Anita Brookner–ish. The conversation was refreshingly un–far reaching. Instead of quizzing Warren on the array of quandaries facing this accursed land, the segment focused on Warren’s incandescent passion for teaching, an ardency that began early. She recalls the “sparkling-clean classroom” of her beloved second-grade teacher with hallowed wonder, and how at the age of eight she would line up her dolls and exhort them to do their homework. A studious misfit, Warren found her mojo as a high-school debater, where she got her first taste of being under-represented and underestimated: she belonged to one of the few boy-girl debate teams; the guy-guy teams would roll in, size her up, and think, “Umm, easy pickins … ,” only to get Benihana’d by this ninja bookworm.
A Crusader’s Passion
The crux of the Cut profile was Warren’s stint as a law professor at Harvard, where her inquisitorial drill downs made John Houseman in The Paper Chase look like a stuffed panda. Former students recall her interrogatories with fear, awe, respect, and gratitude, a rite of initiation that prepared them for intellectual combat. Sentiments mostly unshared by Warren’s later political rivals and even some of her Democratic allies, who resent some Ivy League–schoolmarm type getting up in their grill. “You are very good, professor,” we hear Joe Biden mutter, as if relegating her to the broom closet, after then Harvard professor Warren lodged a spirited objection to the bankruptcy-overhaul bill then before the Judiciary Committee and the choke hold credit-card companies had on consumers.
What Warren’s condescenders don’t get and never seem to learn is that her policy-wonkish pedagogy isn’t some dusty-dry, ivory-tower export but an electric-current expression of being—a crusader’s passion. The chief value of the Cut profile was that it provided an intimate vehicle for the vibrant, clarifying, compelling instrument that is Warren’s voice and the two-way-transmission power of her ability to listen, truly listen. Harris and Sanders both excelled, but only Warren cast a spell.
But it’s still early. We have another year before democracy makes its last stand, and, considering his listless status, Joe Biden might be advised to step into the batter’s box of some offbeat, non-Beltway-centric podcast and lay a little Joe-viality on the restive peasantry. My guess is that he and Ron Burgundy would hit it off swell.
James Wolcott is a columnist for AIR MAIL