Presidential Politics, Part 2: Michael Jackson and “Soft Power”
Willa: So Lisha, I’ve been reading a fascinating book called Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American by John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd, and Celeste-Marie Bernier. Douglass was a freed slave and a tireless abolitionist, and he promoted his political goals in many different ways.
One way was through his ongoing relationship with America’s presidents, beginning with Abraham Lincoln and continuing through the next seven presidents. He met them all, from Lincoln to Harrison, until his death in 1895.
Another was his use of photography and his public image to challenge how white people saw black people. This was especially important after the Civil War, since so many white Americans had been trained for generations to see slaves as less than human. Douglass believed photography had the power to force whites to recognize the humanity of others, and lead whites to see and feel in new ways.
For example, Douglass was a supporter of Hiram Revels, America’s first black senator. While viewing Revels’ portrait, Douglass said, “Whatever may be the prejudices of those who look upon it, they will be compelled to admit the Mississippi senator is a man.”
I’d love for us to talk sometime about Frederick Douglass and how he used his public image to bring about social change. There are some fascinating connections to Michael Jackson, I think.
Lisha: That does sound fascinating, Willa! I suspect a good discussion of Frederick Douglass would go a long way in explaining the significance of Michael Jackson’s work.
Willa: I do too, especially the way he used his celebrity and his evolving public persona.
But for now, I thought Douglass might be a useful starting point to begin talking about Michael Jackson, photography, his public image, and the American presidency. …
Lisha: Well, yes. Because just like Frederick Douglass, Michael Jackson understood the subversive power of imagery, and this is especially interesting and meaningful when we look at how he interacted with the U.S. presidency.
Willa: Absolutely. For example, Douglass attended Lincoln’s inauguration – in fact, he was one of the first if not the first black man photographed as a guest of an American president. Here is a historic photo of Lincoln’s second inauguration, with Lincoln standing at the podium and Douglass circled in red.
Douglass was always very careful to carry himself in a very somber, dignified way in public, and that comes through in this image, I think – even as distant and chaotic as it is.
Lisha: Whoa! That photo is amazing. I had no idea it even existed. Now juxtapose that 1865 photo with this 1984 photo of Michael Jackson stepping out on the White House lawn with President and Mrs. Reagan:
Willa: That is fascinating, Lisha! It’s so incredible to put these two photos together like this, and think that Michael Jackson was standing where Frederick Douglass stood 120 years earlier. So many things changed in those 120 years, between Frederick Douglass at the White House with Abraham Lincoln at the end of the Civil War, and Michael Jackson at the White House with Ronald Reagan as one of the most successful and influential men in America.
These two images serve as such interesting bookends to that long expanse of time, and both document a powerful cultural moment, I think. And Michael Jackson carries it off perfectly, with solemn dignity – just like Douglass. In fact, he has an almost regal bearing.
Lisha: Yes, I agree. And there is just so much information packed into this photograph: the flashy military pageantry, show business glitz and the trademark white glove – a proud, young, fabulously wealthy African American man outshining the leader of the free world! Michael Jackson had just toppled the music industry when this photo was taken, and he rattled many old, demeaning stereotypes at the same time.
Willa: Yes, very well stated, Lisha. And I’m also struck by Michael Jackson’s upright carriage, with Reagan turning in toward him in an almost deferential way. All together, this adds up to an image that conveys an unexpected visual message. If you didn’t know who these figures were, you’d probably think Michael Jackson was the reigning political leader and Reagan an aide!
Lisha: Exactly. It is a bold display of power, no doubt. President Reagan even joked to the unusually large crowd that day about how badly upstaged he was, saying: “We haven’t see this many people since we left China! Just think, you all came to see me.”
Willa: That’s funny! But jokes carry a lot of truth sometimes. …
Lisha: Clearly, Michael Jackson was commanding all the attention, which must have been an unusual feeling for a President and First Lady. One reporter said: “A head of state has never attracted so much attention, so much security and so much excitement,” as Michael Jackson did in Washington, D.C. that day.
Willa: Which is really interesting, if you think about it. After all, we’re increasingly becoming a celebrity culture, and in that environment, attention is power. As a result, power is shifting from the political realm as it’s traditionally been understood to the cultural/media/entertainment realm. At the same time, politics is becoming infused with celebrity. Reagan himself was an important figure in that transition, repurposing celebrity as a kind of political power. He was a former actor and very skilled at using the camera for political ends.
Lisha: Yes, many cultural critics have commented on how Ronald Reagan, as a television actor turned head of state, speaks to the affective nature of power in our society.
Willa: It really does. But even with Reagan’s position and charisma, Michael Jackson still upstaged him, which seems significant.
Lisha: Very significant, indeed. One Reagan aide, John G. Roberts, now Chief Justice of the United States, expressed concern over “the obsequious attitude of some members of the White House staff toward Mr. Jackson’s attendants.” Roberts even shot down a proposed letter from the President to Michael Jackson, warning: “The Office of Presidential Correspondence is not yet an adjunct of Michael Jackson’s PR firm.” It must have gotten dangerously close for White House counsel to issue a memo about it!
Willa: Wow, Lisha! I remember reading about those memos a few years ago, but had completely forgotten about them. And you’re right – for future Chief Justice Roberts to write a memo like that in defense of the American presidency says a lot.
Presidents have considerable political power, obviously. But Michael Jackson understood that artists, entertainers, and celebrities have the ability to shift people’s opinions and attitudes – he mentioned this a number of times – and politicians generally feel the need to follow public opinion. So in that sense, popular artists are sometimes able to lead the leaders. Michael Jackson’s “soft power” at this time was enormous, and in that sense maybe even surpassed Reagan’s.
But I want to get back to something you mentioned earlier, Lisha, about the “flashy military pageantry” surrounding this meeting between Michael Jackson and Reagan. I really think you’re onto something, and I see it in Michael Jackson’s 1990 White House meeting with George H.W. Bush also. Here’s an AP photo of that visit:
Again there’s the very upright carriage, the somewhat deferential politician at his side, and just look at that jacket! The sense of military pageantry you pointed out, Lisha, is so pervasive in these images with Reagan and Bush. These photos seem to be documenting a visit from a British royal rather than a musician.
Lisha: I must admit, this is one of my all-time favorite regal Michael Jackson moments. I remember seeing this British-style military jacket on display at the Getty Images Gallery in London, back in 2012. The jacket is truly spectacular in terms of design, the quality of the workmanship and the exquisite detail. Pictures really don’t do it justice.
Michael Bush commented that after he had finished making this costume, Michael Jackson saw it and pointed to the left side, saying he would like something added there. More specifically, he said he wanted something added “that shouldn’t be there.” So Bush placed a flashy rhinestone broach on the chest, right where one might expect to see a badge or medal on a military jacket like this:
Willa: That’s really interesting, Lisha. I hadn’t heard that story before.
Lisha: I was fascinated by this because it really struck me as a symbol of exactly what we’re talking about here – the soft political power of art, which, by the way, governments have feared for centuries. By visually mixing up the symbols of state power with show business glitz – including a flashy, feminine broach exactly where one might expect to see a badge or another symbol of masculine authority – Michael Jackson creates a subtle but powerful message about the artist’s power and authority to influence the masses.
Willa: What an interesting way to interpret that! And what a great example of Michael Jackson evoking military pageantry – in this case, the medals of honor generally displayed on the left chest of a career military man – but then making a subtle change that profoundly alters it.
Lisha: Yes, it really is clever. Military pageantry has historically been an important component of power, and the British are particularly adept at it. For example, when the British occupied India they were vastly outnumbered, but one way they maintained control was through elaborate military displays and coronations that created a strong perception of power. Here is a photo King George V and Queen Mary at the Delhi Durbar ceremony in 1911:
Willa: Wow! That’s a fascinating concept, Lisha, and an amazing image illustrating it! You can really see the trappings of power on full display here. And for me it also highlights how much theater is involved in creating that sense of power and pageantry. There’s the staging and set design, the elaborate costumes, the choreographed processions, the scripted lines …
Lisha: Yes, exactly. It includes all the elements of good theater.
Willa: It really does. There’s also a feeling of theater about Michael Jackson’s White House visits with Reagan and Bush, and I wonder if that’s how he saw those meetings – as theater, as a performance.
Lisha: This comes across as spectacular theater to me! And it’s no accident. Michael Jackson studied military pageantry and theatrics through films like Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, which documents Adolph Hitler’s use of pageantry – something he riffed on in the HIStory teaser.
Willa: That’s true. I talked with our friend Eleanor Bowman about that in a series of posts a couple years ago.
Lisha: Yes, that was such a fantastic series. And there are other clues, like the military uniform pictured in the HIStory album liner notes. This uniform was customized for Michael Jackson by one of the oldest and best military tailors in London:
The tailcoat by Gieves and Hawkes has been described as “one of the finest examples of Hand & Lock hand embroidery” in the world. So it’s fascinating that one of the finest British military uniforms in existence doesn’t belong to the British armed forces or the royal family. It belongs to Michael Jackson.
Willa: That’s pretty ironic, isn’t it?
Lisha: Yes. And it certainly suggests Michael Jackson thought very carefully about how power can be exercised through art, imagery, costumes, and theatrics.
Willa: It really does. We know he studied British royalty, and their “art, imagery, costumes, and theatrics,” as you put it. Michael Bush mentions this repeatedly in his book, The King of Style: Dressing Michael Jackson. And Michael Jackson did seem to connect that kind of pageantry with political power. For example, early in his book Bush writes,
Michael was infatuated with British heredity and military history. One of Michael’s favorite quotes came from an unexpected source: “It is with such baubles that men are led.” Napoleon had said these words to indicate the significance of the medals with which he regaled his soldiers. When we toured in Europe, Michael made it his business to visit castles and ancient cities, where he was mesmerized by museum portraits of kings and queens. He would stare at them along the walls of Buckingham Palace, Tower of London, or the Houses of Parliament, absorbing it all – the glitz, the glamour, the medals and honors, the larger-than-life ways these royals and commanders were portrayed. Michael was fascinated by all of it. (8)
Lisha: That’s a great quote! In fact, the final Tompkins & Bush design for Michael Jackson shows this quite well. I really think they got this design right, in how beautifully it sums up his life’s work:
Willa: Yes, I think so too – especially the jacket, which Michael Bush says was Michael Jackson’s favorite design. It really is a wonderful reinterpretation that combines a very “masculine” military cut with “feminine” pearls and brooch, as you mentioned earlier. I have to say, it was very moving to read Michael Bush’s account of dressing Michael Jackson in this jacket before his funeral.
Lisha: I thought so, too. And I really can’t imagine a more perfect suit for Michael Jackson.
You know, I hate to interrupt such a serious thought with this, but talking about clothing and badges as an expression of power makes me think about the time John Lennon wore a bus prefect badge to a press interview, perhaps as a fashion statement, or a way of interrogating the whole idea of what a badge really means. When asked about it (here at 1:38), he said so matter-of-factly that he was wearing a bus driver’s badge, and that it meant he was “in charge of a bus”! I thought that was such an artistic way of pointing out how people find ways of expressing their power and authority.
Similarly, Elvis Presley was also fascinated by clothing, badges and displays of authority.
Willa: Yes, I’ve heard that too. In fact, it was in quest of a badge that he requested a meeting with Richard Nixon in December 1970. Here’s a picture of them shaking hands in the Oval Office of the White House:
Lisha: Oh, that is such fascinating image! Look at how similar his belt is to some of the belts Michael Jackson wore! I’m so glad you thought of this photo, Willa. Can you believe that this photograph is the most requested item in the National Archives, which also includes the U.S. Constitution?
Willa: Really? I didn’t know that. You know, this photo was kept hidden for a long time because Elvis didn’t want it released. According to an article in Smithsonian magazine, Elvis initiated the meeting because he wanted a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. (They claim he thought it would help him get through Customs when he was carrying things he shouldn’t be carrying, like guns and drugs.)
So this suggests a very different understanding of power than Michael Jackson’s iconic meetings with Reagan and Bush. Elvis asked to meet Nixon because he saw the president as a powerful person who could give him something he wanted. It’s a more traditional way of viewing power, kind of like a subject approaching the throne and requesting a special dispensation from the king.
Lisha: Yes, that’s right, and it’s my understanding that Nixon did authorize Elvis to have the BNDD badge that he wanted. But when Michael Jackson met President Reagan, the power dynamic was the other was around, as you suggest. Instead of Michael Jackson seeking a meeting with the President, it was the Reagan administration that contacted Michael Jackson, because Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole wanted permission to use the song “Beat It” in a public service announcement. According to Randy Taraborrelli, Michael Jackson initially wasn’t interested, but changed his mind after the White House agreed to stage an award ceremony in his honor.
Willa: Yes, and if that’s true, it suggests he very deliberately thought about the ceremonial aspect of this moment, just like the British royals staging their imperial pageantry during the colonial period in India, as you mentioned earlier, Lisha.
Just as importantly, Elvis didn’t want his pictures with the president to be made public, but Michael Jackson did. In fact, for him, creating and disseminating those visual images seems to be the main point. He seems to have been very aware of how he would appear on camera, and how these images would play out in public. He realized it was those images, not some sort of Special Agent’s badge, that would convey power.
Lisha: You’re right. The staging of the White House ceremony was the payoff for Michael Jackson, but that wasn’t the case with Elvis. In fact, we might not even have the Elvis/Nixon photo if it weren’t for the White House photographers who meticulously document the President’s daily schedule. Since it’s impossible to know in advance which presidential moments will someday be of historical importance, photographers pretty much capture everything. President Obama told National Geographic this takes some getting used to – the fact that all day, every day, the President is constantly being photographed. He talks about it in this documentary about White House photographer, Pete Souza, around 4:30:
Willa: Thanks for sharing that video link, Lisha. I hadn’t seen that before, and I was really struck by President Obama’s words when he said,
It’s actually a very difficult thing for anybody who occupies this office to be under that kind of constant observation.
I imagine that’s true, and that “constant observation” is something Michael Jackson had to deal with his entire adult life. But it also made him very camera savvy, so when a moment like his meeting with Reagan or Bush came along, he knew what to do to create a dramatic image that told the story he wanted to tell.
Lisha: I thought the very same thing – that constant observation the President has to endure is very much like what Michael Jackson experienced every time he stepped out in public. But I think Michael Jackson learned to use this as a form of gesamtkunstwerk, or one aspect of a more a total work of art.
Willa: I agree. I strongly believe he used his celebrity as a new genre of art. And I also believe that in his White House visits, Michael Jackson was deliberately setting the stage for the kind of “pageantry” you were describing earlier, Lisha.
So looking at the very different ways power is conveyed in Elvis’s meeting with Nixon (where power is transmitted individually through a Special Agent’s badge) and Michael Jackson’s meetings with Reagan and Bush (where power is transmitted globally through iconic imagery), it’s interesting to consider another meeting of a musician with a president….
Two years after Nixon met with Elvis, he met with James Brown, and the photos are very similar to the Elvis photos. In fact, they’re standing and shaking hands in the exact same spot. Here’s a picture:
Once again, the power dynamic is really interesting. Apparently, Nixon’s people sought out James Brown, just as Reagan’s people later contacted Michael Jackson, and they asked him for his support. James Brown had a lot of respect for Nixon, and eventually endorsed him during his reelection campaign. Here’s a video clip of that:
James Brown was harshly criticized for this endorsement, as you can imagine. But the more he was criticised, the more vocal he became in support of Nixon.
Lisha: Like Elvis, James Brown genuinely admired Nixon and appreciated his position on issues that were important to him. So like many artists do, he lent his celebrity and cultural clout towards helping Nixon’s political campaign. But that is something I don’t recall Michael Jackson ever doing.
Willa: No, he never did. He saw art as more powerful than politics – he said that on more than one occasion – and he chose to express his ideas, his beliefs and emotions, through his art.
Lisha: Yes, it seems quite deliberate. And it reminds me of what James Brown says in this interview about being a countryman, rather than a partisan. I really love how he expresses this.
Willa: I do too.
Lisha: I’m also really struck by how his philosophy describes Michael Jackson. After being decorated by two consecutive Republican administrations, Michael Jackson once again played a significant role in the next Democratic administration, performing for President Bill Clinton’s inauguration.
Willa: That’s right, and he also connected with Jimmy Carter after he left office. In fact, Jimmy Carter visited Neverland. We’ll talk about that more in our next post when we continue to look at Michael Jackson and the American presidency.
Lisha: To be continued!