November 6, 2008

Campaign Stars Live Past Election

By Maria Puente

The longest presidential campaign in the history of the universe finally staggered to an end Tuesday, so it's time to speculate about who or what might stick around, shaping our popular and political culture for years to come.

Just as much fun: guessing who or what will fade back into erstwhile obscurity.

Naturally, obscurity is not the fate of President-elect Barack Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden. Even the losers in the race -- Sen. John McCain and running mate Sarah Palin -- are destined to linger in the pop-culture panorama.

Especially Palin, the governor of Alaska. We all know that one won't disappear -- not when book deals, party leadership and media stardom beckon from the Lower 48.

Even before the voting, Palin was being talked up for a talk show. And why not? Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee lost his bid to become the GOP nominee for president this year, but he won a talk-show gig on Fox News.

At the very least, Palin's distinctive style -- conservative updo and skinny eyeglasses, pencil skirts and feminine jackets with peep-toe pumps -- could end up having more influence over women's closets than Hillary Clinton's many pantsuits.

"With her charisma and clear political smarts, we have not seen the last of her," says Ana Marie Cox, political blogger/commentator and former voice of the snarky Washington blog Wonkette, who has been covering Palin.

She is "the hottest property in media," says Hollywood media expert Michael Levine. "I know a lot of people at high levels (in the industry), and the strong consensus is: She's a rock star."

But what about the other names (Joe, Tina, Rachel, Keith) that emerged as potent forces -- or suddenly appeared -- during the campaign? And whither those catchphrases and issues? In a month, will we be chanting "Drill, baby, drill!"? Debating about the "real" America or the meaning of a fist bump? Will soaring Saturday Night Live slide to normal ratings? Will red states and blue states turn murky purple?

Predicting what will last and what will tank is tricky. Because this unprecedented campaign went on so long (22 months) and because so much happened, some things have already faded into the mists. Stuff preoccupied us for multiple news cycles, then vanished to make room for the next big thing.

"It's as if this campaign were a TV sitcom and every word that came out of every character's mouth is a catchphrase, so there's 75 per episode," jokes Robert Thompson, head of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. "The result is diluted -- who remembers Hillary crying? There's no single phrase that has emerged -- as in 'There you go again' (from the 1980 campaign) or 'You're no Jack Kennedy'" from '88.

One overnight sensation of 2008 (besides Palin) has to be Joe the Plumber, the Ohio man who confronted Obama on his tax policy and was immediately adopted by McCain, who cited him repeatedly in the final presidential debate.

"Our financial situation, our wars abroad, the looming deficit -- all else pales beside the pressing question of what will happen to Joe to Plumber, who strides the landscape like ... well, a large, striding object," says satirist/novelist Christopher Buckley. "Everyone wonders: Is he the new Mr. Clean? Will he show up on Dancing With the Stars? Endorse Roto-Rooter? Run for office?"

Some people think Joe the Plumber will endure as a political and demographic symbol/label, but that Joe himself will soon go back to plugging leaks in Ohio. "'Joe the Plumber' will probably replace 'Joe Sixpack' for the next few years to represent Everyman," says Bob Garfield, co-host of National Public Radio's On the Media.

Says Rachel Sklar, senior contributing editor for Huffington Post: "He'll come up as a reference, as in, 'Where's the beef?,'" the memorable line used in the 1984 presidential campaign.

Cox, however, is hoping for big things from Joe (real name Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher), who now has a publicist and agent and is talking about writing a book. Contrary to reports, he is not thinking of becoming Joe the Country-Music Singer, says publicist Joe Della Croce, but he will be discussing his future career, if any, with his new posse soon.

"I'm hoping he'll turn up on a reality show, because then he will have found his level," Cox cracks.

Cox also predicts we'll be seeing Obama Girl again. Model/actress/singer Amber Lee Ettinger wiggled to fame after she appeared in viral videos on YouTube, starting way back in June 2007, alluringly endorsing Obama. "She has a very good agent, she's a lovely girl, and she's gorgeous," says Cox, who bunked with Obama Girl during the Democratic convention.

In fact, Ettinger is in discussions about becoming a host for an online talk show about entertainment and politics, and her first album, Queen of the Web, is expected out in early 2009.

You might expect comedian Tina Fey to become ubiquitous with her uncanny Palin impersonations. But, busy with her own award-winning sitcom on NBC, 30 Rock, she has said she does not plan to go on channeling Palin. As for SNL, longtime producer Lorne Michaels joked to Charlie Rose last week that after the election, "the ratings will plummet, there will be severe budget cuts, and we'll go back to our normal life."

Don't count on it, Sklar says. "SNL has proven itself to be relevant again by crystallizing the debate and becoming an essential part of discourse every week," she says. "There is definitely new life for SNL."

Another TV figure we'll probably keep seeing: Rachel Maddow. The onetime coffeehouse employee's new show on MSNBC took off late in the campaign and has even bested CNN's Larry King in the ratings. Says Sklar: "She's not a flash-in-the-pan, because she's not going to stop being smart. She has the best chance to stay relevant because she isn't angry. Keith Olbermann (who's host of MSNBC's Countdown) has done a fine job of using outrage to respond to outrage, but when your guy wins, it's a little hard to be outraged."

Maybe the best way to gauge what will last and what will fade is to check the scripts for next year's ripped-from-the-headlines Law & Order. Will Joe the Plumber turn up in a guest spot on L&O?

Buckley, whose latest satiric novel, Supreme Courtship, features protagonists eerily similar to Biden and Palin, says Joe could make an "admirable character" on L&O.

"He could be cast as the criminal but turn out to not to be the criminal in the end," Buckley imagines. "Sam Waterston (as the district attorney) would uncover evidence absolving him of the dreadful crime, and there would be a moment of tenderness as he apologizes.

"And we could all say, 'Say it ain't so, Joe.'" (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>