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Taking sides?

Jay Leno's role at the governor-elect's rally has many wondering just how far the blending of politics and entertainment will go.

October 20, 2003|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

The first thing almost everybody says about Jay Leno is that he's "nice."

He visits old friends in the hospital. He brings his new state-of-the-art motorcycles to local hangouts to the delight of fellow bikers. He gives out free tickets to "The Tonight Show" to star-struck autograph hounds.

So, what's a nice guy like this doing in the murky sludge of power politics? A Washington, D.C., think tank is monitoring his joke output. Political watchdogs are scrutinizing his relationship with the newly elected governor. And whether he likes it or not, America's leading late-night talk show host finds himself on the leading edge of the merger of politics and entertainment.

A stand-up comedian who started out joking about cars and girls in the Ed Sullivan era, Leno served as a key conduit for Arnold Schwarzenegger's gubernatorial campaign, ranging from the "Tonight Show" announcement of Schwarzenegger's candidacy to Leno's introduction of the governor-elect at his victory party.

NBC executives defended that appearance as a personal decision, and for his part, the country's top late-night comedian has avoided serious questions about his increasingly powerful role as a funnyman who's become part of the political process. He declined to be interviewed for this story.

According to recent surveys, 10 percent of Americans -- and nearly half of those under 30 -- now use the late-night shows as sources of news about politics. "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," with roughly 5.5 million viewers, leads "The Late Show With David Letterman," "Jimmy Kimmel Live" and "Late Night With Conan O'Brien." When a Leno guest says or does something newsworthy, millions more see clips the following day on news shows or read about it in papers and magazines.

"What happens on Leno has more impact than CNN, MSNBC or Fox," says Chad Griffin, a Hollywood-based political consultant.

Candidate appearances on popular television shows are nothing new. Two months before the general election in 1968, Richard Nixon appeared on the premiere of "Laugh-In," delivering the show's signature line: "Sock it to me." "It was considered a brilliant stroke," says UC Irvine historian Jon Wiener, and it set the stage for candidate Bill Clinton playing the saxophone on "The Arsenio Hall Show" in 1992. Both Al Gore and George W. Bush followed suit with Leno in their presidential campaigns.

Democrat Howard Dean showed up on "The Tonight Show" a few weeks ago. He played a guitar on the street as Hollywood producer Rob Reiner dropped a dollar in his case. The clip appeared later on news segments about campaign fund-raising.

A product of Hollywood and a frequent guest on the show, Schwarzenegger was already savvy about the marketing opportunity for unfiltered air time Leno's show provides celebrities and candidates. He announced his candidacy on "The Tonight Show," and on election night, Leno introduced the victor as supporters cheered.

For those who have followed the steady overlapping of politics and entertainment, Leno's short introductory speech represented a new descent on the "slippery slope" toward a democracy built on media fantasy and connections. Had Leno been a Schwarzenegger supporter all along? Is he a mouthpiece for certain politicians, Republicans particularly? Should the show be required to give equal time to all candidates?

At the least, Leno's appearance at a partisan affair was unusual for a mainstream entertainer, says Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media & Public Affairs, a Washington, D.C.-based media think tank. Surveys indicate public hostility can arise when entertainers get involved in politics. Any entertainer who aligns himself with one side of an issue risks losing the part of his audience that holds the opposing viewpoint.

But Leno gains as well. As he joked at Arnold Schwarzenegger's victory party, "Tonight is a testament of just how important one appearance on 'The Tonight Show' can be, ladies and gentlemen." The next evening, Schwarzenegger appeared on the show to tease Leno about looking bored at the rally.

With the underdogs nipping at his heels in the ratings, Leno was interested in celebrity and politics, and in Schwarzenegger, he got them both, observers say.

"It may be [Leno's] reference is so much show business, he didn't really think through the political image that might be conveyed," Lichter says.

According to a Leno publicist, Leno and Schwarzenegger are more professional associates than personal friends. "They have an affable and mutually beneficial personal relationship," he says, noting that they're more "Hollywood friends" who meet at events and parties, but that they're not known to visit each other's homes or share meals.

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