We probably have Richard Nixon to blame for this.
When he was running for president in 1968, Nixon decided, against the advice of just about everyone around him, that he needed to improve his image with the hip crowd by making a cameo appearance on the new edgy comedy show “Laugh-in.”
Nixon was on for just four seconds. All he did was repeat one of the show’s most popular catch phrases. But his “Sock it to me?” sounded absurdly out of place for a former vice president who once had engaged in a heated exchange with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev about things that really matter.
The Democratic candidate in 1968, Hubert Humphrey, reportedly turned down a similar offer from “Laugh-in,” believing it was beneath a presidential candidate.
But Nixon won, which meant the “Laugh-in” experience had not been a liability, and might even have been an advantage. Politics and popular culture have never been the same.
There may or may not be a direct line between that moment and President Barack Obama's appearance this week on “Between Two Ferns,” a crass and often obscene Internet production by funnyordie.com. Nixon was just a candidate when he acted silly. So were Bill Clinton, when he played the saxophone on Arsenio Hall, and Jimmy Carter when he made some outrageous comments to Playboy magazine.
But Obama plowed new ground by carrying the presidential mantle into an absurd give-and-take with decidedly not family friendly comedian Zach Galifianakis. (Yes, Gerald Ford appeared briefly on Saturday Night Live while in office, but all he did was introduce the show and throw out a joke or two in a taped segment.)
Admittedly, you would be hard pressed to find someone less hip than me. But if you haven’t seen the Obama segment, I’ll warn you. Parts of it are genuinely funny.
But it’s funny in a modern, ironic, absurd and deprecating sort of way. The president endures questions about sending “ambassador” (Dennis) Rodman to North Korea, whether he will build his eventual presidential library in his “home country of Kenya,” and this gem: “I have to know, what is it like to be the last black president?”
When the president begins plugging healthcare.gov, which was his reason for coming on the show, Galifianakis impatiently looks at his watch and asks, “Is this what they mean by drones?” Beneath the president, the show superimposes, “Barack Obama, community organizer.”
But Obama’s timing is impeccable, and he responds with some zingers of his own while trying hard to maintain a serious demeanor.
But while we debate whether it was appropriate for the leader of the free world to stoop to this level (imagine Vladimir Putin enduring deadpan questions about his invasion of Ukraine), we may be missing a more important point about the culture.
Politicians tend to be less concerned about propriety than about reaching the people they need. Nixon was described by some as being desperate for votes in ’68. Obama is desperate to reach young people because, without them signing up, Obamacare’s core structure will collapse.
The most troubling aspect of this, then, is that a president would conclude the best way to reach young people is by compromising the dignity of his office.
When Nixon was president, many young people wanted to “turn on, tune in and drop out.” Today, one thing young people won’t turn on or tune in is the news. They get that, if they get it at all, from social media and anything that goes viral. In the 2012 presidential election, only 45 percent of those in the 18-29 age category voted, compared to 66.3 percent of those over 30.
Obama’s calculations probably were correct. The White House has tweeted that funnyordie.com is now the leading referral site for new healthcare.gov signups.
The trend is clear. As Americans fade deeper into their own virtual worlds, politicians will be tempted to reach them any way they can, even if it panders to the crass.
It won’t raise the level of discussion, nor will it lead to civic engagement or an informed electorate. In the end, those ideals may be the real victims of “sock it to me.”