The Phil Hartman Effect

(Image courtesy NBC)

(Image courtesy NBC)

Josh Kraushaar says that Hillary Clinton’s “flight from the media is reinforcing her weaknesses” as a candidate:

The reality is that Clinton’s avoidance of the press is a product of weakness, not the result of a shrewd campaign bypassing the media because it can. She may be avoiding short-term pain by sticking to her script, but she’s creating an imperial image of herself that’s hard to reverse—and one the media has every incentive to reinforce. If she doesn’t have a credible response to explain her use of a private unsecured email server, Republicans will eagerly fill the void with attack ads casting her in the most unfavorable light possible. Even if voters aren’t following every detail about her conflicts of interest with the Clinton Foundation, the constant unfavorable news coverage is bound to trickle down to voters. For a candidate looking to find a “warm, purple space” to unify the country, these controversies hit where it hurts the most.

Effective attack ads contain at least a nugget of truth — not about the candidate’s positions, but preferably about their character. Positions come and go, but character is forever. It wasn’t all that difficult to portray Mitt Romney as out of touch because, hey, dude with an elevator for his car.

But the very best attack ads are impossible to counter, because they have the Phil Hartman Effect.

During his days on SNL, Hartman wasn’t exactly the best voice guy ever to grace the small screen. His Sinatra didn’t sound much like Frank, and didn’t look much like him either. Same goes for Hartman’s Chuck Heston, his Phil Donahue, his Ronald Reagan, or even — yes — his Barbara Bush. (His Bill Clinton was amazing however.) And yet anyone who watched Hartman portray celebrities always marveled at how funny they were, and how dead-on he was.

Hartman’s trick wasn’t that he wore enough makeup to look just like them, or was such a vocal chameleon that he could sound just like them. What Hartman did instead was find that one defining character trait and then give it just enough zing for perfect parody.

Sinatra: Done it all, and with zero patience for upstart punks like Billy Idol who never even nailed Ava Gardner. Reagan: Smarter than almost anyone gave him credit for. Barbara Bush: Only looks sweet. Etc.

A great attack ad does the same thing, and there’s very little defense against them. Think of Mike Dukakis riding the tank. We always suspected he was a doofus, and then we knew — and we just don’t elect a doofus to POTUS. Barry Goldwater has a reputation as a nuke-rattling warmonger? Hit him with the “Daisy” spot. These ads might not be fair, especially “Daisy,” but that’s like complaining that Hartman was too tall to play Reagan — it completely misses the point.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a political candidate so ripe for the Phil Hartman Treatment as Hillary Clinton is — if only if someone in the GOP would dare to put on the blonde fright wig, don the crown and scepter, and have the whole country laughing at President Entitlement.