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Why the 2008 Presidential Election Was Not Entirely Unlike Rock of Love Charm School
Phil West

I guess winning was the point of all of this, wasn’t it?

We knew it had to come to an end, the Presidential election of 2008, and we knew it had to come to an end on November 4, 2008, and barring some unthinkable calamity, we knew it would end one of two ways: Either with President McCain and Vice-President Palin and a lot of hand-wringing and four more years of consoling ourselves with whatever with the Daily Show and Colbert Report crews could wring out of each day’s sure-to-be-horrific headlines – or with President Obama, and joyful singing, and strangers hugging strangers, and then the realization that Hero Obama and Great Hope Obama and Finally A Candidate That Speaks to Us Obama would be President. When you go from the crowd-drawing hope of the free world to a mere President – which was the goal all along, but seems of only marginal respect and effectiveness given the taint left by the current officeholder – there’s bound to be some letdown.

And given that it was a 21-month campaign full of drama and intrigue and drama and a fabulous cast of characters and drama and great lines and drama drama drama, it’s a little hard to accept that we’re going to go from that to debates over where the rest of the $700 billion arbitrarily set aside for recession relief is going to go. I realize that the policy debates to come are going to be much more crucial to the future of our nation than anything that happened on the campaign, but I’d still rather analyze whether McCain calling Obama “that guy” in the second Presidential debate was malicious or merely weird.

Why? Because I, like many of us, got hooked on the election for its entertainment value as well as its sociopolitical significance. And how could you not? Even before we got to McCain, there was the Obama-Clinton battle for the Democratic nomination, which was as epic as any Ali-Frazier or Celtics-Lakers or O.J. versus the State of California battle we’ve been hooked on as a collectively-watching nation.

In a year in which reality TV has reached new apexes (or perhaps new nadirs, depending on your aesthetic), this election was the best reality show going. There were scores to monitor in the form of state-by-state primary and caucus results. There was an ongoing debate about the merits of the caucus system.1 There was the fascinating primary battle between Clinton-Obama, which combined classic David-Goliath elements with two camps of highly impassioned supporters, debates about gender and race, and unexpected battlegrounds like Indiana, West Virginia, and Puerto Rico2, which typically don’t figure into the proceedings. Though the Republicans quickly coalesced around McCain, the initial group of candidates brought with them interesting debates for the heart and the soul of the Republican Party. And whiteness. And maleness. And a highly-enjoyable dance of cleaving to President Bush values while trying to not anchor themselves to Bush’s plummeting approval ratings.

And there was an amazing cast of characters drawn in broad brushstrokes, which is the real hallmark of any reality show. Despite the presence of an actual real-life actor among the Republican ranks, and despite the megawatt starpower of Obama and Clinton, some of the best characters in the whole 21-month run were the reporters and aides charged with making sense of the storylines.

My favorites included Terry McAuliffe, for his irrational ebullience which only seemed to accelerate as Clinton’s fortunes became increasingly bleak; Rick Davis, the McCain spokesperson who deserves special recognition for Most Cantankerous, and Rachel Maddow, who was so charming and snarky and winningly nerdy in her guest spots on Keith Olbermann’s MSNBC show that she ended up getting her own show.

It was, in fact, not at all unlike Rock of Love Charm School.

The gods have smiled upon with two seasons of Rock of Love so far. For the uninitiated, Rock of Love is a reality show starring Bret Michaels, former lead singer of Poison, attempting the always-treacherous solo career 20 years after your main claim to fame has ceased to be relevant. In Rock of Love, Michaels is looking for love in an elimination-format reality show, with a variety of challenges engineered for entertainment value, initially featuring 20 different women. Most of the women appear to be self-employed models, if you get my drift, and most of them also appear to have gone the surgical enhancement route.

This, on its face, doesn’t seem like it would be great TV. But it’s incredible TV, due to the cast of characters. The brands of Heather, Lacey, and Rodeo were so strong in particular that they made cameos in Season Two, each placed in charge of contestant challenges, after being eliminated in Season One. Heather’s brand is In-Charge Party Girl, Lacey’s brand is Conniving Two-Faced Goth Rocker, and Rodeo’s brand is Older and World-Wise Western Gal with Adorably Crazy Laugh.

And all three came back for Rock of Love Charm School, which featured 20 Rock of Love alumni seeking transformation rather than Bret Michaels’ affections. The Charm School show formula was built for the Flavor of Love alumni. Flavor of Love, like Rock of Love, featured unpolished women vying for the affections of an erstwhile music celebrity – namely, former Public Enemy second banana Flavor Flav. In both shows, the entire premise of the show is a mean-spirited joke: the seeming impossibility that the women in question could be “reformed” via charm school. But despite that contrivance, the Charm School format is more evolved in that success is dependent on self-improvement rather than making one’s self desirable to an easily-distractible clown prince.

In both Charm School and the election, success was contingent on several steps:

  1. Establish the characters – they need to be archetypal, but with their own distinct personality traits and quotable moments
  2. Get audience members to develop rooting interests
  3. Conflict
  4. Gauging the downfall and elimination of each contestant

The water-cooler moments occur, of course, because of conflict, but it’s the rooting interests that allow the audience to be invested in the first place, and by establishing the characters, we tend to gravitate either to characters with values like ours or to characters who are so perversely not like us that we delight in their bizarro world, this-is-how-we-don’t-do-it-styled antics.

And, of course, gauging the downfall of each contestant is what keeps viewers hooked. We want to be able to say with certainty, in the middle of an episode, who will be sent home that week – even though the episode has been edited with that knowledge in place. An election isn’t edited in the same way, obviously, though we look to campaign coverage for the same sorts of clues we look for in a reality show – telling missteps, being on the wrong side of strong alliances, the whims of the judges/voters.

So, to extrapolate the analogy, Clinton inexplicably making a speech in which she erroneously claimed to dodge Bosnian sniper fire or Romney not able to effectively counter McCain’s charge that he is “the candidate of change” is akin to Brandi C. spitting in Destiney’s face or Megan kicking Brandi M. in the crotch or Lacey yelling at random women on Hollywood Boulevard for not caring about the homeless. (See? Even for those who didn’t get to watch, Rock of Love Charm School is thoroughly enjoyable, just in being able to read recaps like those.)

And elections and reality shows share one more characteristic – the ending is supposed to be the most satisfying part of the whole show, but typically, a downfall moment is more gratifying and more dramatically satisfying. The Rock of Love Charm School final featured two equally-deserving contestants, made possible by the downfall of one of the show’s primary villain characters.

While the 2008 Presidential Election didn’t have quite the same dynamic, Obama-McCain didn’t have the same Battle of the Titans sense that Obama-Clinton did. The Palin sideshow was of course fascinating, but proved to be the McCain downfall moment that served as the show’s premature climax – the alliance gone horribly, horribly wrong. For all the emotions that Obama supporters felt on Election Night, surprise was not really one of them.

Does the lack of suspense at the end – be it the election or the reality show – make it any less enjoyable? If you expect the ending to be the big reveal moment, the way it is on home remodeling shows, then yes, it does lose some of its firepower at the end. But if you appreciate it for the journey rather than the destination, and see the ending as an assessment of values rather than a surprising conclusion, then the final episode becomes more of a coda than a climax. The water cooler discussion, then, becomes a matter of figuring out what the pivotal moment was exactly – and if it was just one, or a whole series.

But aside from a fleeting sense of wondering what happens next, and the often-enjoyable spectacle of a reunion show, we don’t follow the characters beyond a particular show – unless they end up on another reality show in a slightly different context.

But we’ll be following Obama and Clinton and McCain in their new roles (or in McCain’s case, in his reprise) as we go about our daily news gathering. Winning and losing is no longer so clear-cut, and unless you count the 2012 election, which it seems far too early to do, the sense of how Obama is doing will be more debatable and nebulous than it was during the election. Even the decision to have Rick Warren deliver the inauguration invocation is hard to label – is it a shrewd political move, an attempt to bring ideological diversity to the event, a pointed rebuke to the left, or the first misstep in maintaining the Obama coalition? Interesting, perhaps, and certainly up for debate, but not nearly as satisfying as what came before it.

1. I personally like what the caucus system did for Obama, and in theory, I like the idea of a system that rewards more invested members of the party faithful, but having run a precinct caucus in Texas, I can now attest to what a chaotic and hideous beast it is in practice. And this is in a precinct in which things were civil and Obama won 27-4.

2. In fact, Puerto Rico prided itself for having a more joyful campaign style than other primaries, and the press (for need of new storylines at that point in the proceedings), gave us footage that might have led us to conclude that the Puerto Rico vote was going to come down to a limbo contest. Remember, after all, this is the primary that gave us village-by-village counts in Guam, and made Clinton and Obama supporters temporarily lose their minds and champion certain Guam villages accordingly.