An unexpected political dust-up unfolded yesterday after Funny or Die posted President Obama’s appearance on “Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis.” The point, of course, was to promote the Affordable Care Act in a fully six-minute clip, and depending on your sense of humor, the comedy was either effective or it wasn’t. (I happened to like it, but your mileage may vary.)
Either way, the video was successful in driving viewers to healthcare.gov – which, remember, was the reason for doing the video in the first place – so whether or not it got laughs is secondary.
But the surprising part was the widespread handwringing from conservatives and some reporters about whether it was inappropriate for Obama to appear in the video at all.
ABC News’s Jim Avila peppered White House Press Secretary Jay Carney with questions during a daily press briefing about President Obama’s appearance on FunnyOrDie.com’s interview series with actor Zach Galifianakis. The president plugged HealthCare.gov during the interview, a part of a concerted effort to reach young Americans.“How much discussion was there in the White House about the dignity of the office and whether or not, in order to reach these people who don’t watch us at 6:30, or who don’t watch this briefing,” Avila asked, according to a transcript provided to TPM, “how much the dignity of the office might be lost?”
Conservative media was more unreserved in its outrage. Bill O’Reilly went so far as to complain, “Abe Lincoln would not have done it.” A Republican congressman seriously suggested the president shouldn’t talk to Funny or Die, but should instead focus on Benghazi.
This is all a bit silly – and I’m not referring to the comedy.
Look, online videos are obviously new, but Obama’s FOD appearance was hardly unprecedented. Eisenhower made an appearance on a show called The Colgate Comedy Hour. Reagan participated in comedy birthday specials for George Burns and Bob Hope. Two months before getting elected to the White House, Nixon did “Laugh In.”
George W. Bush even appeared live on a Howie Mandel game show.
I’m not indifferent to the prestige of the U.S. presidency, but I don’t think it’s as fragile as some conservatives and reporters suggested yesterday. Obama wants to get a message to the public, so he’s relying on a variety of media to reach disparate audiences. That’s not necessarily a bad thing and it’s probably time for the Beltway to get used to it, because future administrations will have no choice but to follow this same trail.
It’s safe to say dignity of the presidency endures – and will no doubt remain intact in the wake of “Between Two Ferns.”
As for O’Reilly’s concern that Lincoln wouldn’t have done this, it’s a little tough to compare mass communication strategies in the 1860s to contemporary times. That said, I’d remind the Fox News host (and ostensible author of a book about Lincoln) that the iconic president had a reputation for telling risque jokes in the White House, so much so that Lincoln’s media critics of the day “assailed his lack of dignity.”
Somehow, the “dignity of the office” survived.
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