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CAMPAIGN 2000

In Politics of Celebrity, Be Charming, Win Big

Campaign: In an entertainment-driven world, get warm and fuzzy on 'Oprah' and it can pay off at the polls for the presidential candidates.

September 29, 2000|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Lighten up, they told him. If you want to win the presidency, show people your human side and stop talking about issues all the time. It wouldn't hurt to relax.

And so it was that Adlai E. Stevenson, brainy and remote, began stumping for votes at lingerie counters and playing croquet with startled senior citizens in the 1956 presidential campaign. Other White House contenders have taken similar advice, with Richard Nixon blurting out "Sock it to me!" on "Laugh-In" and Jimmy Carter confessing sinful thoughts in a Playboy magazine interview.

"Democracy begins in conversation," philosopher John Dewey said years ago, and the 2000 version of this political maxim is alive and well--a reality driven home most tellingly by Al Gore's and George W. Bush's cuddly appearances earlier this month on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and guest spots this week on CNN's "Larry King Live."

"We live in a celebrity culture that treats elections like one more form of entertainment, so Americans want to know the inner personalities of candidates," cultural historian Neal Gabler said. "And the fact that we're living through good economic times, when issues aren't tearing up the country, makes the force of personality even greater."

Some may recoil at the sight of Bush dressing like Regis Philbin or Gore groveling with a platter of pastries before Judge Judy Sheindlin on the "Today" show. Yet he who turns on the charm is often rewarded: Bush, whose campaign had been trailing in the polls, got a major "bounce" after his appearance on "Oprah," and he has either closed the gap with Gore or overtaken him, according to a host of recent public opinion surveys. Few political strategists can say with any certainty how much Bush's "Oprah" appearance sparked this change, but the potential effect of her talk show and others is unmistakable.

Winfrey's broadcasts with Gore and Bush drew higher than usual audiences for her. The vice president's appearance was seen in 8.7 million households, compared with Winfrey's average 7.5 million daily average for 1998-99, according to King World Productions, which co-produces and distributes the show. Although similar figures are not yet available for Bush's appearance, those numbers are likely to be even higher because the overnight ratings for major markets were larger for that show.

At a time when 47% of the 18-to-29-year-old public says it gets news about the presidential campaign from late-night television show monologues--a finding by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press--it is unrealistic to think candidates would confine themselves to interviews about policy on network news programs.

"Ultimately, this comes down to dollars and cents," said Robert Dallek, biographer of Lyndon B. Johnson and John F. Kennedy. Candidates spend a fortune on TV ads, he noted, but exposure on David Letterman's or Jay Leno's show is free, and it can often generate weeks of coverage in other media. If the focus is on personality quirks instead of hard issues, so be it.

"Look at all the mileage that Bush got from the GOP convention when we learned he read 'Hop on Pop' to his children," said Evan Cornog, author of "Hats in the Ring," a study of presidential campaigns. "It puts the focus on personality as never before, and it will cause some people to wonder: Should Gore read 'Goodnight Moon' on television to show that he's a caring and nurturing father too?"

The schmooze fest rolled on this week, as Bush and his wife, Laura, tried to score points Tuesday night with an appearance on King's interview show, while Gore held a "town hall" meeting with college students in Michigan on MTV. Then Gore and his wife, Tipper, chatted with King on Thursday night.

To be sure, Gore and Bush have talked about issues for much of this year, and the debates will likely put an even greater focus on their political experience, competence and grasp of detail. Yet it appears the "happy talk" component of their respective campaigns may play a more crucial role in this year's battle than in previous contests.

For some, these appearances are a black mark on American democracy. "It's become a disgusting spectacle," said cultural critic and author Camille Paglia. "The idea that you now have to kiss the ring of Oprah Winfrey or act like a buffoon on a television show to win the U.S. presidency is something that should concern all of us."

But others believe this is merely the latest wrinkle in a long historical continuum. Although the media have changed, experts suggest, the impulse to ingratiate has not.

"The desire of candidates to reveal themselves, to promote their persona, has been a part of our politics for more than 100 years," said Gil Troy, a McGill University historian and author of "See How They Ran," a study of presidential campaigns. "Voters don't just go about electing a virtuous man; they have to choose a personality too."

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