Late Night with Al and Dubya
Television talk shows have become mandatory stops for presidential candidates.
By Sharyn Vane
Sharyn Vane has written and edited at papers in Colorado, Florida
WE'VE COME A LOING WAY since the days of Richard Nixon on "Laugh-In" and Bill Clinton's saxophone stint on "Arsenio Hall." Now it's pretty much a given that in addition to devising a Social Security plan, trading barbs over foreign policy and posing for photos with farmers and small children, the road to the White House includes a stop on Leno or Letterman.
The reasons are fairly simple: In a world of rote stump speeches that may not even make the evening news--much less interest potential voters--sometimes the only way to reach certain people is to go on late-night talk shows (or even just talk shows, as evidenced by "Oprah" appearances by both George W. Bush and Al Gore). Once there, the candidates can ideally show viewers that, hey, they're people too.
"We recognize that sometimes there's a disconnect between Washington and some parts of America," says Gore campaign spokesman Dagoberto Vega. "Whereas interviews with Wolf Blitzer or Peter Jennings are usually very much issues-oriented, Al Gore's appearance on David Letterman is much more light-hearted." (Especially when he and running mate Joe Lieberman parody Bush and Dick Cheney's I-thought-the-mike-was-off judgment of New York Times reporter Adam Clymer.)
And that's something that increasingly reflects our entertainment-centric culture, media watchers say. In an age of so-called reality shows like "Survivor" and "Big Brother," and even their progenitors, like "Cops," which purport to take viewers behind the scenes, we want to see what we believe is the candidate, unplugged (even if in truth, Gore and Bush have been well-prepped for their "casual" chats).
"It did occur to me during the whole 'Survivor' mess that there's probably a place for a show about the candidates, a jazzed-up version of the road to the White House, where you actually watch them behind the scenes," quips Philadelphia Daily News TV critic Ellen Gray. "Of course, no candidate in their right mind would do that.... But there's certainly an appetite for getting beyond the fake."
"Viewers have become inured to the political discussions," says Philadelphia Inquirer television columnist Gail Shister. These shows "aren't scripted. And somebody like Oprah is very good at disarming people and getting them to reveal things that they don't want to reveal.... If you're following a candidate, you've heard the boilerplate. But then you get on 'Oprah' and she starts asking what TV shows do you watch and what snack foods do you like--goofy kinda questions like that, that on the surface seem very picayune, but can reveal more revealing things about a person. They seem silly, but they open up a depth to a person's personality."
The media aren't immune to this, either, Gray notes. They might even be more susceptible, especially the campaign reporters desperate for something new. "There is an entire press corps out there waiting for them to go off-message," she says.
What's playing a role, too, observers say, is increasing cynicism about politics and politicians' ever-changing proposals. As that dissatisfaction rises, so too does an interest in a candidate's character--something that ostensibly doesn't change.
"Most people are not political junkies," notes Trevor Butterworth, editor of the media criticism site NewsWatch.org. "They don't care so much about the specifics of all the plans as they care about what the candidates are like as people--given that they realize that promises are just promises that may turn out to be radically different."
"Comedy to some degree humanizes the process," says Danny Schechter, executive editor of Mediachannel.org, which critiques press coverage. "It expresses [politics] in a way that people can relate to."
What may be cause for concern is that such blurring of news and entertainment is actually adding to our collective distrust of the political process, rather than merely reflecting it, he warns. The appearance of politicians on talk shows "further deepens the cynicism and isolation that people feel," Schechter says. "You feel that you're superior to these clowns."
Nevertheless, since viewers know they'll be seeing the president on TV for at least four years, they want to know a little something about the guy (clown or no) who's going to be beamed into their living rooms.
"Americans have an appetite for sizing up the candidates along these lines," says Bush campaign staffer Tucker Eskew. " 'How will I feel when I wake up to this person, and when I eat dinner to this person?' " And, he adds, " 'How will I feel about the country?' "
All of this raises the $64,000 question: Are voters really making their decisions based on late-night jests with Jay Leno?
"I would hate to think that going on talk shows, whether it's 'Oprah' or 'Regis' or 'The Tonight Show' or 'Letterman,' would make a real difference," says Charlie Cook, publisher of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "But the thing is, is that there's an important slice of swing voters who don't watch the news, they don't read newspapers, they don't pay attention to politics on a day-to-day basis, and you have to reach them any way you can.
"If you...look at the nightly tracking polls a couple of days immediately after Bush was on 'Regis' and 'Oprah,' he went up among people who attended no college, people over 50 years of age, independents and women--which are by and large the people who watch those shows. So I hate to admit that it might actually make a difference, but it does."
OK, so a candidate, a minister and a rabbi walk into a bar...###