Time‘s James Poniewozik has some interesting insights into the possible impact of Tina Fey’s impression on the public’s impression of Sarah Palin. On the one hand, he notes, an impression that succeeds in capturing what the public sees in a candidate — as Fey’s Palin surely has — can be devastating because it is “shamanistic; it’s like owning a voodoo doll: capture your target’s soul, and you can make her dance just by waving your arms.” Fey “owns” Palin’s image in this sense.
And make no mistake, that is a powerful thing. Chevy Chase’s depiction of Gerald Ford, though it was not even really an impression — let alone a very convincing one like Fey’s Sarah Palin — had a huge claim on the public’s perception of the man, and probably contributed to his political downfall.
This is why, in spite of SNL‘s attempts to “balance” their attacks in Thursday night’s debate sketch (and to aim the most pointed barbs at the safest target, moderator Tom Browkaw), McCain got the worst of it: Hammond’s McCain is a better, sharper, more definitive character than Armisen’s Obama. This is not purely a matter of which performer is the more skillful mimic (Hammond, by a country mile); rather, it’s a matter of finding a trait, or set of traits, that can be successfully exploited within the sketch-comedy format. Chase had Ford’s perceived clumsiness and absent-mindedness (or less charitably, dumbness) to work with; Hammond has McCain’s (again, perceived) creeping senility (forgeting questioner’s names), “Mavericky” instability, distinctive physicality (the damaged posture and stiff movements), and “my friends” to work with. Armisen has Obama’s halting cadence (which he doesn’t even capture that well), but little else. The sketch’s attacks on Obama were mostly limited to the substance of what he (the character) said.
There’s something inherently unfair about this, of course. Both the news media and most of the comedy-industrial complex (especially the traditional late-night shows) pay way too much attention to style, too little to substance. And given sketch comedy’s methods, and SNL‘s still considerable influence, the fact that the politician who is easier to imitate is bound to get the worst of it ought to give us pause. As an Obama supporter, I can’t help but be grateful that they haven’t quite gotten a handle on him (though they never really got one on Kerry, either), but I do recognize that as Hammond’s McCain has come into focus, it has simultaneously gotten more devastating and more purely ad hominem, and unfair.
Of course, Fey’s Palin was like this right out of the gate, due not only to the ease with which she can be impersonated, but to the uncanny resemblance between the portrayer and the portrayed. Talk about being a victim of circumstance. It’s analogous to having a face that’s easy to caricature; even if he hadn’t been a paranoid crook, Richard Nixon looked like one. Herblock and other cartoonists got a gift there, just as Fey did with Palin.
But there’s another wrinkle here, and Poniewozik sees it clearly:
But SNL may also have given [Palin] cover on the campaign trail. Fey’s Palin is no love letter — falsely confident, hapless, antiscience and calculatedly adorable — but she’s harmless compared with the Real Palin we’ve seen lately: a culture warrior cannily playing on resentments, a mouthpiece for the McCain campaign’s ugliest character attacks on Barack Obama.
The characterization of George W. Bush as a sort of hapless idiot worked the same way: it overwhelmed and even obliterated other, perhaps more important, aspects of his policies and his character. As Al Franken has argued, the perception of Bush as stupid led the public and the press to excuse his dishonesty, and blame his subordinates for mistakes that were his responsibility:
When South Carolinians get push polls saying John McCain fathered an illegitimate black child, you know Karl Rove had something to do with it. But it’s really Bush. When our energy policy is set by cronies from the oil, coal, and sutomobile industries, you can shake your fist at Dick Cheney. But it’s Bush. When Ari Fleischer feeds rumors that the Clinton people vandalized the White House, doing $200,000 worth of damage, but months later a GAO report says that sin’t true, you can say that Ari Fleishcer is a chimp. And he is. But it’s Bush.
The same thing applies to both Palin and McCain, and the perceptions SNL has locked down of their respective personas: When their supporters yell out things like “terrorist,” and “kill him,” you can absolve McCain and Palin from any blame, because after all, he’s just a senile old fool, and she’s an out-of-her-depth, naive dope. But that’s letting them get away with the same kind of stuff “dummy” Bush has gotten away with for the past 8 years. They know what they’re doing, and they should be held responsible.