On August 16, 1977, the American political system received a blow from which it has yet to recover. On that day, Elvis Aron Presley was discovered sprawled out on the bathroom floor in his spacious Memphis mansion, Graceland.
One hundred seventy miles west on I-40, the boy-wonder Attorney General of Arkansas, who turned 31 three days before, mourned with the rest of the nation.
Little did the young Bill Clinton realize how his fate would prove inextricably linked with the fallen rocker. Little did he surmise that 15 years down the road, he would find that invoking the spirit of this martyred crooner would boost his campaign for the highest office in the land more than any endorsement ever could.
It's no coincidence that Elvis' death directly preceded the decline and fall of American presidential campaigns. Once we elected presidents based upon their campaign pledges or party affiliation or record of past achievement. In 1977, Elvis died. In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected president. Coincidence? I think not.
Ever wonder why elections in Britain tend, on the whole, to be devoid of the symbolic stupidity found in our campaigns? It's because the Brits already have an institutional set-up to relieve the national desire for silly costumes and funny hats. They call it the royal family.
Sure, they mortgage the farm by supporting a bunch of whiny, inbred, philandering malcontents. But it's a small price to pay to preserve the integrity of their political system. The British get their jollies watching royal weddings and royal divorces while they elect colorless but thoughtful politicians like Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Lacking a similar means of letting off symbolic steam, we have to elect movie actors and flag-factory denizens.
But it wasn't always this way. When rock and roll was here to stay, one man united the entire nation--a hero for all regions, races and religions. Can there be any doubt why they called him the King? Same job, different clothes.
But it's different now--presidential candidates have to provide their own ceremonial trappings. If Elvis were still alive, George Bush wouldn't have had to eat pork rinds in 1988. If Elvis had lived, Michael Dukakis might be president. Sure, his eyebrows look funny, and tank helmets don't fit him, but there was a time when this stuff didn't matter.
After all, we twice elected Richard Nixon, a man who always looked like he had just ingested an entire bottle of laxatives. And Jimmy Carter wasn't exactly Mr. Charisma, even if he did confess to Playboy that he had committed adultery in his heart.
But then Elvis died. A great career move, yes, but the death knell for the polity. Lacking an icon to unify the nation, successful candidates used symbols to divide and conquer. Reagan had his welfare queens, Bush his Willie Horton. That shit wouldn't fly when Elvis walked the earth.
What's the solution? A New Elvis? There isn't much hope on the horizon. Madonna's exhibitionist tendency alienates many folks in middle America. Garth Brooks isn't kitschy enough and doesn't win over the gospel crowd. And Nirvana just won't cut it with the hygienic set.
So we're stuck with the King's legacy. Last year in New York City, 35 baby boys were christened Elvis by their politically astute parents. And an entrepreneur announced this summer his plans for marketing a set of 660 Elvis trading cards. We're not talking about just another pretty face on a postage stamp (we did that already in this space on April 1).
The real question in this campaign isn't, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" Let's not kid ourselves. What's important is, "Which candidate reminds you more of Elvis?" Granted, Reagan and Bush never thrust their respective pelvises (thank God), but look at their opponents: Carter, Mondale and Dukakis. No dulcet-toned warblers they.
And this brings us to Bill Clinton, the apostle of the King, the herald of His second coming, the high priest of His Kingdom on earth. For the past 12 months, he has been taking the message to the people, spreading the gospel according to Elvis to all who would listen.
Trying to instill traditional values in our nation's youth, Clinton told MTV groupies that his first rock-and-roll experience was "going crazy over Elvis." Campaigning hard for the New York primary in April, he appeared on Phil Donahue and sang "Don't Be Cruel."