In 1992, Bill Clinton was facing an uphill battle against incumbent President George H. W. Bush for the highest office in the land. Bush may have been leader of the free world, but nobody ever accused him of being “cool.” That’s a weakness Clinton soon capitalized on, donning a pair of Ray-Bans and playing the saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show. It was ridiculous, it was entirely out of character for a serious politician, and it totally worked.
The saxophone stunt wasn’t merely a ploy to make Clinton seem hip and accessible. It was that, but more importantly, it was an attempt to distract voters from a sex scandal that he was embroiled in. This would become somewhat of a running theme in his career. Years before Monica Lewinsky, there was Gennifer Flowers, who went to the press during Clinton’s campaign to claim that he’d been having an affair with her. This, of course, was back in the days when accusations of infidelity and sexual impropriety could cost you a presidential bid.
In response, one of Clinton’s campaign advisors, Mandy Grunwald, suggested a radical new strategy, in which the 46-year-old Arkansas governor would be presented as a hip young dude, while also using the national platform to dismiss Flowers’ accusations. Grunwald’s pop culture bombardment technique landed Clinton the cover of several gossip magazines, as well as Nightline, Phil Donahue, Don Imus, and a pretty solid Simpsons gag. And the night on Hall’s show would have been another run-of-the-mill talk show interview had Grunwald not been there. At the last minute, before Clinton went on the air, his advisors made him change his tie, handed him a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses and a sax, and told him to break America’s heart – but in a good way this time.