In music, they call laying the lyrics from one song over music from a different genre a “mash-up.” My favorite example is “Collision Course,” the effort from rock group Linkin Park and Jay-Z that resulted in the song “Numb/Encore,” used in the 2006 movie re-make of Miami Vice. Like these “mash-ups” that take two songs that should clash and make them sound as if they were always meant to be together, Bill Clinton presided over a political “mash-up” while he was president in the 1990s, challenging conventional thinking in several ways. His Third Way style of politics meshed liberal goals with conservative methods. He literally changed the face of government by choosing women and blacks for previously unattainable positions.
His ultimate mash-up involved his persona. Clinton’s charisma, Hollywood connections and salacious personal life collided with the explosion of 24-hour, personality-driven cable news and entertainment, to make him the first celebrity president of America’s hyper-obsessed media culture.
For all of Barack Obama’s intellectual and policy prowess, it is his “celebrity factor” that may ultimately put him over the top in his race for the Democratic nomination and, ironically, the Clinton “mash-up” paved the way.
When Bill Clinton was elected in 1993, he set out to create an administration that “looked like America,” which resulted in record numbers of African Americans at every level of government. Hazel O’Leary became the first African American and first woman energy secretary, putting her in charge of the nation’s nuclear secrets. Mike Espy became the first black agriculture secretary and Ron Brown became the face of American business as the first black commerce secretary at a time when economic policy was America’s preeminent concern.
Add to this list the groundbreaking appointments of Janet Reno as attorney general and Madeleine Albright as secretary of state and Clinton deserves a lot of credit for making Americans accept people of color and women in leadership.
The impact of those appointments became evident during the Bush years. While Americans took note of the historical nature of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice serving as the first and second black secretaries of state, there was little controversy over their appointments. The Bush dynasty, of course, played its own role in prepping America for a black commander in chief by placing Powell and Rice in charge of the country’s most sensitive foreign policy and defense issues. But those appointments would have been unimaginable before Clinton.
If Bill Clinton distinguished himself by breaking through barriers of race and gender, he also broke the mold by the way in which he relished the limelight of the presidency. Certainly America had glamorous presidents before. John F. Kennedy hung around with Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe, and Ronald Reagan found fame in Hollywood long before he ran for office. But Bill Clinton came to the office in the era of breaking cable news and E! True Hollywood Story, a time when news and entertainment media increasingly found themselves competing for scoops. Whether for his personal indiscretions, his movie star friends, or his ability to wow an audience even with a wonkish policy speech, Bill Clinton drew press. He was as likely to turn up in the pages of People and Vanity Fair as Time and Newsweek, and he turned the presidency into a star vehicle that the early-to-bed George W. Bush, with his frat-boy sense of humor could never truly drive.
Enter Barack Obama.
While Obama has all of the stamps that come with above average intelligence and a successful career (Harvard Law Review Editor, constitutional law professor, best-selling author, U.S. senator, policy papers to spare), it is his personal magnetism and oratorical skills that have stood out the most on the campaign trail. The man is overflowing with talent and charisma, though so far, he has managed to draw the limelight without salacious personal misdeeds. Bill Clinton’s commitment to diversity gave Ron Brown, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice the chance to prove blacks can handle the policy part of the job and Clinton’s embrace of the limelight moved the presidency into the realm of the modern day celebrity culture. Now it is up to Obama to prove that America is ready for the ultimate political “mash-up” — a black president of a majority-white country.