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The New Whistlestop: In Front of the Cameras

Television: Ever since Richard Nixon appeared on 'Laugh-In,' candidates have been eager to be seen on programs. What's that all about?

June 19, 1999|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Presidential candidate Bill Bradley took a break from a schedule packed with political appearances Thursday to film a scene for "Arli$$"--a relatively low-rated Home Box Office comedy series about an unscrupulous sports agent--highlighting an increasingly blurry relationship between fiction and reality on television.

In a minor setback for the producers and perhaps the campaign, a legal technicality rendered Bradley's role considerably less significant than either might have envisioned, prompting some doubt as to whether the appearance would air at all. Bradley originally was to have been shown in a scene in which the onetime New York Knicks star rebuffs the fictional title character, super-agent Arliss Michaels, who hopes a contribution will win him assistance on an immigration problem.

Yet after last-minute concerns were raised about federal election laws, including rules requiring equal time for political candidates, the plan now is simply to show Bradley in the montage that airs during the program's opening credits, stuffing a basketball through a mini-hoop over Arliss, played by series co-creator and star Robert Wuhl.

Producers of the show hope to add those few seconds featuring Bradley to the opening montage starting June 27, though an HBO spokeswoman said the channel's attorney's were still evaluating whether even that minuscule exposure would run afoul of the federal guidelines.

Still, the former New Jersey senator's brush with Hollywood underscores the vital importance of television to any political candidate--a relationship that has ranged over three decades from Richard Nixon saying "Sock it to me" on "Laugh-In" to Bill Clinton playing the saxophone on Arsenio Hall's late-night talk show.

Politicians in recent years have shown great willingness to portray themselves in TV programs and movies. Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura recently shot a separate episode of "Arli$$," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich turned up on CBS' "Murphy Brown," and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) joined former Sens. Paul Simon and Alan Simpson among those featured on the since-canceled NBC comedy "Lateline."

Winding down his nine-day campaign swing through California, Bradley spoke to African American newspaper editors and visited the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center on Thursday before showing up at a nondescript warehouse north of downtown Los Angeles, where the cable program is shot. On the set, he stated the "Arli$$" guest shot had nothing to do with his campaign.

"The campaign was not the relevant point here," Bradley said. "The relevant point was some of the guys here had some relationship with New Jersey or me, and they wanted me to be on the program. I think it was incidental that happened to be in the middle of a presidential campaign."

Wuhl, a New Jersey native who has co-starred in such films as "Batman" and "Bull Durham," participated in a 1990 benefit at the New Jersey Meadowlands on behalf of Bradley's senate run.

Campaign aides stressed the decision to scale down the appearance reflected Bradley's own concern about maintaining integrity in the campaign, after lawyers pointed out the more expansive part producers had in mind might run afoul of federal election or fairness guidelines. The role, they cautioned, could open Bradley to charges he was capitalizing on an opportunity to promote himself, outside the accepted realm of news or interviews, which wouldn't be available to other candidates.

In addition, being featured on the program might also create the impression, as Bradley spokeswoman Anita Dunn put it, that "a corporation was trying to help, even subtly. . . . It would have been a nuisance argument, but it could have been perceived as a corporate contribution."

Beyond arcane legal considerations, analysts say politicians face a delicate balancing act in weighing their need to be seen on television against the risk of being depicted in unflattering or undignified fashion.

Robert Dallek, a former UCLA history professor and Lyndon Johnson biographer who now teaches at Boston University, suggested President Clinton's diminished his prestige with some of his giddier TV appearances, which included discussing whether he wore boxer shorts or briefs in a free-wheeling MTV interview.

"It's a tremendously mixed bag, in the sense candidates have to be on television," Dallek said. "It's essential . . . but it does have its drawbacks."

George Stephanopoulos, the former Clinton advisor and now ABC News analyst, also sees cause to tread carefully in regard to such TV opportunities, though he noted Bradley's current status--trailing Vice President Al Gore in early opinion polls--lessens any political danger.

"There's not much of a risk early [in the campaign]," he said. "If you're unknown, if you're fighting to get the nomination, almost any attention is good attention."

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