Neal Gabler called his 1998 book "Life: The Movie -- How Entertainment Conquered Reality." Politics, he said, is "what one journalist called politainment." "If the main vehicle of the campaign was television, the main thrust of television itself was to dissociate content from image, words from feelings, cogitation from reflex so that the audience would rather react than think."
As if, then, a presidential campaign were a TV show -- or a movie. Since I've been reviewing both for longer than the stars of "High School Musical 3" have been alive, here's how the presidential election of 2008 plays as a couple of movies next door to each other at the multiplex, particularly the performances of stars Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama.
The John McCain Movie -- The back story is as good as any presidential candidate has had in modern times. It doesn't quite match Eisenhower's -- the five star general in charge of winning America's last popular war -- but, in our era, a Vietnam POW who refused release until all his fellow prisoners could be released will do quite nicely, even among those who hated the Vietnam War.
The wicked irony is that everything heroic about John McCain's back story contributes crucially to what people will have terrible trouble voting for, even in red states kindly disposed to him. In other words, the injuries he suffered as a prisoner -- he can't fully raise his arms, for instance -- lead to an utterly overwhelming physical impression of stiffness and advanced age. Unlike Ronald Reagan -- who was in his '70s but had learned from Hollywood's best how NOT to seem that way -- McCain seems like what he is, an unusually old presidential candidate in a demanding era. Add to that, a high, querulous voice, a fabled inability to read a teleprompter and less personal style than the average banker and he's a nightmare TV candidate.
Because of his apparent age, his choice of vice presidential candidate couldn't have been more important. To have plucked Sarah Palin out of nowhere and then put himself in the position of defending her against whatever came up virtually guaranteed also-ran status in the American political multiplex -- a much-reviewed box office failure, not unlike Stone's "W."
The Barack Obama movie -- The back story isn't nearly as good but it's strong enough. In this economy, being the son of a struggling single mother connected to everyone. And the simple fact of his unprecedented biracial identity may -- ironically and against expectation -- be more of a strength than a hindrance.
Any triumph at all for Barack Obama is a feel-good triumph against steep odds and if anything is true about the National Entertainment State in 2008, people want to feel GOOD about the vote they cast. Just as race contributed to Oprah Winfrey's triumph in daytime TV (where she triumphed over seeming to be an underdog), Obama's racial identity, against all apparent expectations, may be an ironic plus for the well-intentioned of all colors just as McCain's back story turns out to be an ironic minus.
In addition, he's young, tall, cool, deep-voiced, even-tempered and gifted with language -- not in the Kennedy or FDR or even Reagan way but gifted enough to speak persuasively and without rancor. (How the '50s version of Miles Davis -- whose LP "The Birth of the Cool" would invent a concept still with us more than a half century later -- would have loved Obama.)
His wife is attractive and comfortable being herself in front of others. And his running mate may be a legendary Senate big mouth, but there's something folksy and cracker-barrel about Joe Biden's loquacity, as if he were the town philosopher with something to say about almost everything, at least half of which everyone has been trained to ignore (or to read as a friendly trust in them.)
In any ordinary multiplex weekend, the feel-good Obama box office would swamp the stiff, crotchety McCain movie co-starring Sarah Palin, the political Kathy Lee Gifford.
Whether next Tuesday, though, will be "ordinary" in any way remains to be seen.