Politicians should always be careful about who they pick fights with. The benefits and negative consequences need to be weighed up before launching any sort of attack that could make or break a political career. Generally they don’t like getting into tangles with the mass media if they can avoid it. To reuse an old quote, “never upset anyone who buys ink by the barrel”. That’s why politicians so often prefer soft targets like immigrants and single mothers.
President Bush and his Vice-President, Dan Quayle, would have done well to heed this warning. In the early 1990s the so-called ‘culture wars’ were sweeping parts of America. This was an ill thought out attempt by the Republican Party to try to promote what they considered American core values, after the liberalism of the 1960s and 70s. This culminated in the infamous 1992 Republican National Convention, where Chairman Rich Bond told the audience “We are America, they are not America”.
President Bush decided to contribute to this debate by attacking the lack of family values promoted in the media. In particular he chose to target the dysfunctional Simpsons family, arguing that “America should be more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons”.
This statement had a couple of big flaws. One was that it made Bush look spectacularly out of touch with modern culture, as the Waltons had been off the air at that point for the best past of a decade. Secondly there is the fact that he was simply wrong. On first glance the Simpsons look like the worlds most horrendously screwed up clan. However if you watch the show for only a few episodes, you quickly realise that they are hugely supportive of each other, and are almost your typical American family. The Simpsons was then at the zenith of its popularity and responded with an episode opening that directly attacked Bush and the USA’s current economic problems.
Later on they would devote an episode to showing Homer and Bush getting into a feud when they end up living next door to each other.
Not learning from his bosses mistake, Dan Quayle (no stranger to mistakes himself), decided that he wanted to devote precious time and energy to attacking sitcom characters as well (didn’t he have better thing to do?). He chose as his target the character Murphy Brown from the programme of the same name. He gave a speech arguing that, by becoming a single mother and choosing to raise a child by herself, Murphy was presenting a bad role model for young Americans. America is, and should always be, a country that prides itself on its diversity. Murphy Brown responded by running an episode incorporating Quayle’s comments into the show and poking fun at them.
I think the lesson here is that politicians should always be careful when trying to jump on a bandwagon, and doubly careful when involving themselves in popular culture. It’s a bit like when people heckle successful stand up comedians. More often than not the comedian wins. Partly because they’re funnier then the audience, partly because they’ve lots of practise when taking on hecklers, but mainly because they have the stage and the microphone and the heckler doesn’t.