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Pop Go the Politics 

Half-truths, outrageous hyperbole and hilarious cock-and-bull stories bring us fully into the 2008 election season.

The political season hit an upswing last week when U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona and heiress extraordinaire Paris Hilton of La-La Land traded barbs over domestic energy policy. It was one of those rare moments when pop culture intersects with national politics, thrusting teenage girls into the same audience as overweight oil executives and bringing together — possibly for the first time — readers of PerezHilton.com and WSJ.com. Paris Hilton, like, totally got in the best blows, though, calling for a balanced approach that swiped the best planks from each party's platforms, whose candidates are "the white-haired dude" (Republican McCain) and U.S. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, his Democratic counterpart. "We can do limited offshore drilling, with strict environmental oversight, while creating tax incentives to get Detroit making hybrid and electric cars," Hilton says in her Web-only commercial. "That way the offshore drilling carries us until the new technologies kick in, which will then create new jobs and energy independence. Energy crisis solved!"

It's ludicrous. Without a doubt. But, as the swimsuit-clad Hilton points out, McCain started the tiff. He had an earlier ad that used images of Hilton and Britney Spears in an effort to attack Obama as "the biggest celebrity in the world." Hilton's spoof, which places McCain alongside images of CNN's Larry King, the cast of The Golden Girls, Col. Sanders and Yoda, was a way of hitting back. Obama's campaign has so far refused comment, but McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds couldn't resist. "It sounds like Paris Hilton supports John McCain's "all of the above' approach to America's energy crisis — including both alternatives and drilling," Bounds says. "In reality, Paris Hilton may have a more substantive energy policy than Barack Obama."

As for Spears, she hasn't responded yet. Hilton, for her part, is in the race — in the spoof ad, she tells McCain and Obama, "I'll see you at the debates, bitches!" If Kentwood's favorite daughter should weigh in and play along, Gov. Bobby Jindal would certainly enjoy further speculation as a possible VP. (Fake bid, real bid. It's all good press because people will read it.)

Celebrity culture and the democratic process have always shared an intimate relationship. After all, political races are entertaining. That's why hordes of movies, including Kevin Costner's ill-reviewed Swing Vote (released last week), continue to be made about politicians and their wacky ways. This fascinating history can be traced back as far as Sinatra's Rat Pack shilling for John F. Kennedy or as recently as Oprah Winfrey pushing Obama like he was the book of the week or a made-for-TV movie. Closer to home, Louisiana's guitar-slinging governor Jimmie Davis, star of radio and TV, remains one of the Bayou State's shining examples of how pop fame can work in favor of a populist.

In Politics and Popular Culture, John Street writes that "every (political) party now deploys the language of the advertising executive and the skills of the pop video maker in their election campaigns." That's one of the reasons voters have become comfortable identifying politics with popular culture, and why operatives are keen on using it as a muse. But Street writes that this poses a dilemma. "The connection does not just "happen'; we have to see it as being created and administered. If we do not, the two perspectives — from popular culture to politics, from politics to pop culture — will seem to come together in a vague, postmodern haze in which everyone is in the same business."

Many voters do view the two worlds on the same plane. A Pew Research Center poll found that 21 percent of people between ages 18 and 29 rely on Comedy Central's The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live as sources for news on the presidential campaigns. And based on the finds of a recent National Annenberg Election Survey, Jon Stewart is very good at his job. The survey concluded that The Daily Show audience is better informed about election issues than people who watch the nightly news and read daily newspapers.

So the show must go on. And it does over at TrueLandrieuStory.com. It's a creation of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, meant to play off of E! True Hollywood Story, a celeb-obsessed bio series. It does its best to demonize incumbent U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a New Orleans Democrat, with images of a $100 bill and the Capitol dome serving as a backdrop. A hard-looking Landrieu, in stark black-and-white, stares at the viewer. To increase tension and drama, the Web site's top banner goes for the jugular: Corruption? Criminal Investigations? Bribery? Louisiana deserves better than Mary Landrieu.

The site doesn't deliver anything as spectacular as the banner's boasting (proving the trailer really is the best part sometimes), but it does start off with a nugget of fact that will continue to haunt Landrieu throughout the rest of the campaign. Earlier this year, good-government groups and a handful of editorial writers thumped the senior senator for securing a $2 million earmark for the Voyager reading program and receiving $80,000 in campaign contributions linked to company officials. In mounting a defense, Landrieu's office has produced a letter showing that the superintendent of the D.C. public school system initially requested the financial assistance. There's also the argument that the Voyager dollars were not actively sought by her staff.

Packaging and acting, meanwhile, make up the storyline over at the campaign of state Treasurer John Kennedy, Landrieu's Republican challenger. Kennedy went on the air with a TV ad last week that shows him arriving to work with his lunch in a brown paper bag, pausing briefly to pick up a penny off the ground. A narrator says Kennedy is a "frugal debt manager" who saved the state hundreds of millions of dollars and a "wise investor" of taxpayers' money. The narrator calls Kennedy "brown bag cheap." Kennedy replies, "Cheap? Maybe we could use a little of that in Washington."

It's probably not the approach Kennedy would take with voters one-on-one, with the brown paper bag and all. It's a carefully constructed image made for TV, and an image Democrats will likely slash by listing meal expenses from Kennedy's own campaign finance reports. It details a number of meals not served in paper bags: $90 at the Shreveport Hilton; $64 at Drago's in Metairie; $48 at Mansur's and $56 at Churchill's, both in Baton Rouge; and $57 at Acme Oyster House and $47 at Le Pavillon, both in New Orleans. (Not that Landrieu's campaign doesn't indulge; you can find a delicious $1,567 catering bill from Antoine's on Bourbon Street in her most recent quarterly report.)

The lights and drama and scripting are unmistakable. A touch of Hollywood has brought us deep into the belly of the 2008 election season, but there are plenty of plot twists and surprise endings to come. Only with this show, you won't be able to vote politicos off the circuit by calling an 800 number. For that, you'll have to show up in person this fall to a voting booth near you.

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