A July 2 article on the influence of popular culture on the presidential campaign incorrectly said former Treasury secretary Paul H. O'Neill wrote a recent book. "The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House and the Education of Paul O'Neill" was by Ron Suskind. (Published 7/3/04)
When movie theaters began playing a Hollywood-produced newsreel backing the candidacy of Republican presidential challenger Thomas E. Dewey in 1948, Harry S. Truman didn't sit still. Threatening the studios with an investigation, the president demanded -- and got -- equal time. Voters later said they found Truman's hastily compiled newsreel to be more persuasive than Dewey's in the whisker-close election that fall.
Contending with the popular culture was a lot easier in those days. Now, a spate of pointedly political movies and books -- most prominently Michael Moore's cinematic assault on President Bush, "Fahrenheit 9/11," and former president Bill Clinton's best-selling memoir, "My Life" -- have the presidential campaigns and pundits pondering an unusual, and perhaps unprecedented, question: Can the popular culture influence an election?
Moore's and Clinton's works, in particular, have become bona fide news events, crowding out other stories and clouding -- if only temporarily -- the campaigns' efforts to sell their daily messages. Bush's campaign and that of his opponent, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), are convinced the buzz is fleeting, but they acknowledge that it has become another factor to contend with.
"Fahrenheit" is striking in its popularity, tone and timing. No movie or television show with so searing a political point of view has been released to such widespread embrace so close to an election. The movie was the most popular film in America in its first five days of release, seen by almost 6 million people through Wednesday. It has also become the subject of intense media coverage, making its controversial claims about Bush a subject of chatter in workplaces, in gathering spots and at dinner tables across the country.
Apart from the dueling Dewey-Truman newsreels, the closest parallel to the Moore movie may be the 1983 release of "The Right Stuff," which came as Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio), the former astronaut whose exploits were depicted in the dramatic movie, was preparing to run in the presidential primaries. But that film was not nearly so partisan, and Glenn's character was one of several in the movie. (Glenn lost badly in the primaries to Walter F. Mondale.)
Clinton's memoir may be the publishing industry equivalent of Moore's movie. As of Sunday, after six days in release, it was the top-selling volume in America, with sales of 935,000 copies. Its timing, too, has little precedent. John F. Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Profiles in Courage" was published four years before Kennedy beat Richard M. Nixon in the 1960 race. Barry Goldwater's "Conscience of a Conservative," which sold 3.5 million copies and raised Goldwater's national profile, was published four years before he became the Republican presidential candidate in 1964.
Alongside the Clinton and Moore blockbusters are a cluster of recent or forthcoming political works, most taking a strongly anti-Bush line. Clinton's book was preceded on the bestseller lists by volumes written by former counterterrorism chief Richard A. Clarke, journalist Bob Woodward and former Treasury secretary Paul H. O'Neill. Lesser-known documentaries critical of the administration include "Control Room," "WMD: Weapons of Mass Deception" and "Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War." Opening in September is filmmaker John Sayles's "Silver City," a fictional tale about a corrupt, grammatically challenged gubernatorial candidate. Another documentary, "The Hunting of the President," recounts conservative-led investigations of Clinton's conduct in office.
Few suggest these works will turn the election, but the profusion of Bush-bashing projects may suggest something about the mood of the country, says Mandy Grunwald, a Democratic consultant who devised Clinton's strategy of using appearances on MTV and "The Arsenio Hall Show" as a publicity tool in 1992. Grunwald recalls that the bestseller lists and talk radio were brimming with invective against Clinton before the 1994 midterm elections, which led to huge Republican gains that year. "The popular culture was reflecting where the country was at that moment," she said. "Now the culture is going the other way. I think it's telling us that the country is moving Democratic."
Bush representatives say they have taken a purposely low profile on "Fahrenheit" and "My Life" to avoid fueling the publicity. One campaign official dismissed the idea that their popularity could hurt Bush, saying that the most likely reader or viewer is already committed to Kerry, anyway. "We don't think people are going to be distracted from the big issues in this campaign by someone trying to sell a book or a movie," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Conservative supporters of the president have been more active. One California-based organization, Move America Forward, has urged people to avoid the movie and has asked theaters not to show it. (That effort appears to have failed; the film is to play on about 1,700 screens this weekend, about twice its current number.) In perhaps the oddest twist, Citizens United, a group based in Washington, argued before the Federal Election Commission last week that TV ads for the film would violate the McCain-Feingold law prohibiting "independent expenditures" for a candidate if the ads continue after Kerry accepts the Democratic nomination in late July.
If anything, Kerry's campaign has been more reluctant than its rival to engage with the subject -- a hesitance that has surprised supporters who think Kerry should try to exploit the anti-Bush tone. Asked for comment, Kerry spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said: "It's something independent of the campaign. We have nothing to say."
But one Kerry campaign source, who asked not to be identified because he is not a primary spokesman, explained that it would be risky for Kerry to associate himself with such harshly critical portrayals of his political rival. "For the faithful, [Moore] is a prophet; for the other side, he's a lightning rod," he said. "You might influence someone in the middle, but you could also turn people off if you do it in too strong a fashion."
But it's harder to make the case that any book or movie will persuade swing voters. Scholars who study public opinion say people form opinions and make judgments based on a complicated series of factors. Further, any message must be repeated and reinforced over and over, so any movie, book or TV show, in isolation, is unlikely to have much effect.
S. Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington, recalled studies done in the wake of ABC's 1983 telecast of "The Day After," a popular film about the aftermath of a nuclear war. The movie became a rallying point for nuclear-freeze groups and the subject of news-discussion programs. Yet surveys taken before and after the program aired indicated little change in public opinion about U.S. nuclear and defense policy.
"One event doesn't change opinions," Lichter said, "particularly an event that comes several months in advance of an election."
Moore's film has exposed millions of people to two hours of unrebutted argument -- the most persuasive kind of speech, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center. Although she says it's "an open question" whether anyone has been persuaded by the film, she points out that the sheer number of people seeing the film is remarkable during a political campaign. "If millions of people came to a stadium to hear an anti-Bush speech, you'd say that was an amazing moment," she said.
The only comparable phenomenon, she said, is talk radio, which is dominated by conservative hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly and Laura Ingraham. "In battle of one-sided communication," Jamieson said, "the right is way ahead."