Armando Iannucci: How television changed the face of politics

The comedy kingpin behind Veep and The Thick of It explains America's reverence of big personalities but suspicion of ideas

The story goes that, as Richard Nixon was getting ready in the candidates’ green room to face JFK in the first ever televised US presidential debate, he saw Senator Kennedy decline the offer of make-up. Suddenly Nixon felt he ought to do the same, in case the addition of artificial blusher and foundation made him inadvertently look too much of a political tart next to his opponent.

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So he, too, declined the offer and left the room, to rejoin his advisers. At which point Kennedy, his work done, quietly told the make-up girl he’d changed his mind and would like some after all. The rest is much-documented history. In the ears of those listening to the debates on their radios, Nixon won. To the eyes of the many millions more watching on television, the young, photogenic Kennedy used his carefully tinted face to beat his unshaven and shifty-looking opponent even more black and blue than he already appeared.

The modern cult of the political personality is said to have been launched that night. Kennedy went on to win over Nixon by no more than 0.1 per cent of the popular vote. It’s impossible to quantify whether the legendary clash of faces made all the difference, but from that night, image became a lazy shorthand for character.

At the start of the third season of Veep, the vice-president, Selina Meyer, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, sits in a hotel room confronting the unavoidable need to project a defining image as she starts her run for president. Her solution is to write a book of her life and thoughts, called Some New Beginnings: Our Next American Journey.

As the title would imply, it’s a committee-written concoction attempting to transform her life story – that of a wealthy, privileged Washington insider – into the inspiring biography of a normal person growing up with the hopes of the average American citizen in her heart. So this intelligent, serious politician writes tales of her time as a child, riding her pet pony.

This politics of personality may have started its modern phase with Kennedy, but it would be wrong to think that his predecessors weren’t subtle manipulators of image. FDR’s fireside chats, Churchill’s speeches, Lincoln’s calculated projection of his common roots, Disraeli’s very carefully chosen colourful jackets, even Julius Caesar’s decision to be seen in public wearing a laurel crown; all these conscious manoeuvres tell us that, for millennia, politicians have been aware of the powerful story a carefully nurtured image can convey. How these statesmen carried themselves, their verbal mannerisms and visual appearance, could reinforce or extend the reach of statecraft. All Kennedy did was realise that television extended this reach exponentially: in a visual age, a politician could only score success if he or she looked the part.

Meanwhile, in the UK, Harold Wilson, prime minister for the latter half of the 60s, cultivated a down-to-earth, pipe-smoking, mac-wearing, blokey style that disguised a wily intellectualism. And today, if you were to judge our politics simply by the front pages of newspapers, you’d think what matters most to us is the personality of the leaders of your political parties. They’re judged on their knowledge of daily bread prices, knowing who won The Voice, how well they can head a football, what they wear on holiday or how many bacon sandwiches they can cram into their mouth without dribbling. So, we’re told, the two dominating forces of British political life at the moment are Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, on the basis they don’t look or sound like robots.

But the truth is, in the UK, “personality” seldom translates into votes. The Cleggmania that briefly tsunamid the nation during the leaders’ debates in the 2010 general election didn’t lead to a surge in the Lib Dem vote. Meanwhile, John Major, perhaps the greyest statesman since measurements of greyness began, is actually one of the 20th century’s longest-serving prime ministers.

We have a tradition of being unimpressed by politicians who look like they’re trying too hard to impress us. Winston Churchill, you remember, was thrown out after winning the war, and replaced by the charisma-vacuum Clement Attlee.

In the end, we buy the programme of ideas offered by a party, rather than the portrait of its leader. When a party doesn’t look like it has a coherent programme, or has run out of ideas, it’s rather rudely rejected. That’s because, no matter how hard a British prime minister tries to centralise power in his or her office, we still have an executive where some real power is still spread across many departments.

The loudest arguments these past four years have been less about David Cameron and more about the policies of his ministers: Gove at Education, Duncan Smith at Work and Pensions, Osbourne at the Treasury. And no matter how Nigel Farage may project himself as a bit of a personality, the sort of bloke you could go for a pint with in the pub and then put your empty glasses on your heads, it’s really what his party was saying about immigration and Europe that garnered the attention.

America is different, though. The default setting of the US constitution is the freedom of the individual, so American politics can often be about the forceful expression of individuality. That’s why the country swears in army generals, actors and community organisers to the office of president; the more you can show you’re not a politician, the better chance you have of being elected one.

America reveres big personalities: it carves their faces into the side of a mountain. But with reverence for personality comes a suspicion of ideas. A figure like Al Gore, who had things to say about technology and climate change, was perceived as being too wonky. A manager like Mitt Romney, who lived and breathed PowerPoint, simply didn’t connect.

This is the great dilemma any ambitious American politician has to face when contemplating running for the highest office in the land: how to take all those spending plans, tax strategies, military overviews and proposed benefit reforms and hide them deep, deep under the skin of someone who acts normal. The man or woman who’s thought long and hard about the presidency has to look like the sort of person to whom such thoughts are highfalutin nonsense.

That’s the dilemma that faces Hillary Clinton, ex-First Lady, Senator and Secretary of State, as she tries to project herself as an outsider. It, too, is the fate of Selina Meyer, in her 20th year in Washington, as she sits in a lonely hotel room, signing books she didn’t write, containing stories about her pony, all for a job she believes is her destiny.

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Veep begins tonight at 9:35pm on Sky Atlantic