YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


It's 'Survivor 2004'

There's no question that when reality meets television, the results are strange. Witness the '04 presidential contenders, an often odd bunch seeking a winner's persona in a post-spin, irony-laden world. (Word to the wise: Stay off the hog.)

November 23, 2003|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

As the past few years of so-called reality programming have shown, you just never know what people will do once they get on TV.

On a recent Wednesday, the day after his press secretary and deputy finance chief quit in protest after the dismissal of his campaign manager, Sen. John Kerry appeared on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" -- or rather, he straddled a Harley and crashed through a makeshift NBC security barrier, breezing past a doughnut-huffing security guard as Jimi Hendrix's 1969 "Ezy Ryder" blared in the background:

"There goes Ezy, Ezy Ryder/ Riding down the highway of desire/ He says the free wind takes him higher/ Tryin' to find his heaven above/ But he's dyin' to be loved/ Dyin' to be loved."

The highway of desire is a tricky road, though. Once widely considered a likely Democratic front-runner but now lagging, the Massachusetts senator was evidently dying to be loved again. (At least the musical selection turned out to be fitting, if not in the way it was intended.) Clearly, the motorcycle stunt was meant to inject some excitement into an identity system that doesn't seem to be tracking with television audiences. But watching the senator chat with Leno while all spiffed up in a denim shirt, jeans and shiny brown leather bomber jacket was sort of sad. Kerry followed Triumph the Insult Comic Dog (a hand-puppet) and Ross the Intern. Even the rubber Rottweiler was appalled at the billing. "The Terminator can take over the show, but John Kerry, a war veteran, has to follow a

Well, for one thing, it's image-crafting season for America's Democratic hopefuls. With just seven weeks to go until the Iowa caucuses, the would-be nominees are flinging all sorts of identity experiments against the wall to see if they'll stick. Considering the candidates' often similar positions on social and foreign-policy issues, this nomination will at least partly come down to whatever mysterious X-factor they manage get across on TV. As candidates pop up in late-night skits, youth-oriented ads and MTV-style debates, the recipe for "presidential" seems increasingly complex.

Those familiar with the conventions of "reality" TV might recognize a certain pattern as this process goes forward. In the real/fake logic of elimination programming, perhaps the most important quality to possess is a singular, standout trait. (The Firebrand, The Insider, The Man of Integrity, and so forth.)

Still, if it came down to singularity, camera appeal and an ability to knock 'em dead, the funny, expansive Rev. Al Sharpton and the articulate, friendly-seeming Carol Moseley-Braun would be further ahead in the game. Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, with his hangdog mug and sad eyes, wouldn't even be in the race. Middle-of-the-road marketability -- Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina looks like he could have been dreamed up in a network focus group -- doesn't seem to cut it, either.

Though Edwards is often described by political reporters as "the cute one," retired Gen. Wesley Clark, with his soulful eyes and coat-rack shoulders, could throw his hat into the selection of the next James Bond (albeit one who's not afraid to get misty for Dan Rather). A seasoned political commentator but a relative newcomer, Clark's mysterious, dark-horse image seemed to give him momentum, at least initially. But Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri -- who's no slouch in terms of brand-recognition -- could founder on his familiar, inside-the-Beltway image.

Is unorthodox good?

And then there's Howard Dean, already famous for being "bad" on TV. Next to Kerry, Dean's televisual persona is spectacularly tense. During debates, his eyelids fly up like rollerblinds with every attack, his jaw clamps shut, his head snaps back, his fingers break into arpeggios on his fidgety knee. Despite this, or maybe because of it, he's the front-runner. Remarkably, Kerry, the master of the bemused head-cock and the indulgent smile, is being clobbered by a guy who can't even force a grin for Larry King.

Mom's prescription for popularity -- just be yourself, dear -- may be working for Dean, but it doesn't work for everyone. Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, for example, projects commitment, sincerity and passion -- but, as pundits consistently point out, he doesn't look the part.

But what is the part, exactly? Who best to go mano a mano with George W. Bush, an incumbent whose televised persona seems to have zipped through every wedge on the image roulette wheel -- from Folksy Everyman to Action Hero to Go-It-Alone Hawk -- before landing on Privileged Insider and Defender of Corporate Interests, at least among those seeking to unseat him. For the Democratic image-crafters, it would seem that projecting a certain type of outsider iconography -- though not too much -- is an asset against Bush.

Los Angeles Times Articles