Throwing Her Hat on The Web

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 21, 2007

If a Democratic primary were held on sheer production values, Hillary Rodham Clinton would win in a landslide.

In the video on Clinton's Web site yesterday, announcing the formation of a presidential exploratory committee, she chucked the formulaic genre of flag-draped backdrops and stiff monotones, instead delivering a 1-minute 45-second vlog-cast that arrived like a chintz-upholstered, sun-drenched blockbuster.

Perched almost-comfortably on a shabby-chic couch with a carefully rumpled pillow at her back, Clinton spoke in that intimate tone befitting her rhetoric, which focused on words like "conversation" and "chat."

Unlike other candidates (coughBarack Obamacough), whose videos might have been produced by a guy with a cellphone camera, Clinton's announcement was a veritable showpiece of Hollywood-style set design, lighting and cinematography. While Clinton, looking radiant in a red jacket and flattering makeup, affected the demeanor of a kaffe-klatching neighbor while speaking about the Iraq war, energy, Social Security and health care, the camera swung with pen dular subtlety between a background tableaux of framed family pictures and a fabulous table lamp exuding a warm glow. In fact, the background is so eye-catching, so crowded with totemic details, so bursting with semiotic potential, that I missed whole passages of Clinton's statement the first time around. (And yes, I do want that lamp.)

The effect was one of breathtaking political shrewdness and brilliant staging, like a mash-up between "The West Wing" and Diane Keaton's latest holiday heartwarmer. And for all its studied spontaneity, its air of having been pre-tested, choreographed, and managed to within a microfiber of Clinton's mascara, it worked, if only to provide a little eye candy within a grainy sea of canned speeches and awkward iChats. The aesthetic sophistication suited Clinton, who, as a former first lady and a U.S. senator, would look hopelessly out of place in most other contexts (rocking the mom jeans in the Ninth Ward? Uh-uh. Maybe an ornate Senate office, but where's the zazz in yet another wall of law books?), and the look and the script warmed up a woman portrayed as either an amoral ice queen or control-freaky dragon lady by her political opponents.

Still, for all of Clinton's glitz, the best example of the announcement video genre is John Edwards's, which he staged like a news story in post-Katrina New Orleans. Seamlessly blending form and content, Edwards seemed to take a page from Anderson Cooper for character and setting, while he spoke passionately about his signature theme of "two Americas" and creating a fake-news video image that would look right at home amid the screen grabs, podcasts and bootlegs on the Web. (Meanwhile, Republican U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback made an announcement yesterday as well, but he kicked it old school, stating he was an actual presidential candidate, not an exploratory one, and delivering the news live in front of hundreds of supporters, with his Web site presumably receiving the official video by pneumatic tube.)

So candidates now find themselves thrust into a new target-shoots-first media universe, where to preempt leaks and take an early bite of the public-awareness apple, the Web site exploratory committee announcement has become the new hat in the ring. And while politicians navigate the Googley highways and Wiki byways, looking about as comfortable as Barbara Bush at a rave, the young and the viral that they're trying so desperately to win over are ready to chew up and spit out anything that smacks of the inauthentic, the unhip or the analog.

It remains to be seen whether any or all of these explorers decide to run, and then if any of them succeed in conquering YouTube political culture. On second thought, that one's easy -- the only remaining question is who will be the first presidential candidate to figure out how to combine their campaign kick-off with Diet Coke and Mentos.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company