Polity: Pol.i.ty \ˈpä-lə-tē \ 1. the condition of being constituted as a state or other organized community or body.
Pop; \ päp \1. reflecting or aimed at the tastes of the general masses of people.
It’s Los Angeles, in the early autumn of 1968. Former Vice President and current Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon makes his way from the podium after conducting a press conference. At his side is his longtime friend, speechwriter and television writer Paul Keyes, pitching him one more television appearance before the general election. Nixon, true to form, has his doubts when it comes to anything having to do with television—though eight years removed, the debate with Jack Kennedy is still very much an open wound. His campaign advisors, including future Fox News president Roger Ailes, are also leery. To this point they’ve steered Nixon away from television, save a handful of assorted puff pieces and well produced general question and answer specials, their audiences armed with softballs rather than slings. And they’ve been telling him Keyes’ idea is a bad one since the get-go. They’re telling him even now as Keyes, here and in the flesh, urges him on. He says it would only take a few minutes and it would let people warm up to him. He even brought a camera along with him, ready to go. It’s only four little words. Just four syllables. In, out, done.
Nixon says yes.
On September 16th, 1968, viewers of the new NBC hit comedy/variety show Laugh In get an unexpected break from its signature bikinis and body paint. For four seconds, the show’s pastel whirlwind gives way to Richard Nixon’s face, juxtaposed against a plain brown backdrop. He turns to the camera, his eyebrows arching inquisitively as he asks, “Sock it to me?”
While politics and pop culture in America were never strangers to one another, Nixon took their relationship from friends with benefits, to moving in together in just over four seconds. The juxtaposition of the dour Nixon not just appearing on one of television’s hippest shows, but speaking its catchphrase created a sensation. The American public was used to seeing political figures on television, but not like this. Intentionally or (most likely) not, Nixon had not just warmed the general public up to him, but he had humbled himself before them, briefly allowing himself to become their entertainment. While this may not have immediately changed the way the American public views their elected officials, or how candidates would come to seek the approval and support of would-be voters, it sowed the seeds.
Two months later, Nixon defeats Hubert Humphrey (who passed on Laugh In) in the general election. While there is no definitive proof that it’s his appearance specifically that swings the election in his favor, keep in mind that he wins the popular vote by a margin of 250,000, one twentieth of Laugh In’s 5,000,000 viewing audience. On election night, when the television declares him the winner, the first person to shake Nixon’s hand in congratulations and call him ‘Mr. President’ is none other than Paul Keyes. If ‘Sock it to me’ was the moment popular culture and politics moved in together, his ensuing victory was the positive home pregnancy test that tied them together forever.
Only four short decades later, it’s hard to imagine that this would pack such a cultural wallop. We think nothing of John McCain or Al Gore hosting Saturday Night Live. We take John Edwards announcing his candidacy on The Daily Show and Newt Gingrich announcing his on YouTube in stride. What’s that you say? John Matrix from Commando wants to govern California? Sure, why not. If the guy can fight his way out of a tool shed surrounded my mercenaries armed with automatic weapons using only a pitchfork and a couple rotary saw blades, why shouldn’t he be able to draft a budget for the eighth largest economy in the world? We elect our political officials with our ballots, and we elect our cultural icons with our attention. They reflect and overlap each other because the common denominator they share is you and I.
Here at Politypop, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to document these instances where the line is blurred or, in some cases, non-existent, all while not taking ourselves too seriously. After all, if it weren’t for self-effacement we wouldn’t be here in the first place. Thanks, Dick.
And so, gentle reader, we encourage you to sit back, enjoy the ride and please, please, pretty please don’t worry. Just take a deep breath and remind yourself that in a true democracy, that which is popular should always rule.
Tigh M. Rickman