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Just how powerful is a comic's punch?

Late-night hosts weave politicians into a lot of laugh lines -- humor that can hinder or help.

May 19, 2004|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

On its face, it wouldn't seem to be a good thing. You're the president of the United States, running for a second term, and some of the most popular commentators on television are depicting you as a dimwit and a vacation-loving slacker who lets your No. 2 guide the ship of state.

It wouldn't be the profile that White House image-maker Karl Rove would choose for George W. Bush, but it's the one the president seems to be stuck with, courtesy of Jay Leno, David Letterman, Jon Stewart and other TV comedians.

Bush, in fact, was the target of more than three times as many jokes on late-night television during the first four months of this year as the expected Democratic nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, according to a media watchdog.

The comedians and their handlers say that's typical of the attention drawn by an incumbent. They also acknowledge that, while they have settled on a caricature of Bush, they are only beginning to fix on Kerry, as waffling, dull and out of touch.

But political analysts, presidential historians and media watchers say that the stereotypes of a less-than-brilliant, distracted chief executive often work to Bush's benefit.

Stuart Stevens, a Republican consultant for Bush and an accomplished writer of essays, fiction and television programs, said the majority of Americans don't take to heart the opinions of late-night comedians or others they see as part of the East and West Coast elites.

"People who are interested in voting for this president don't need the Good Housekeeping seal of approval from people who hang out in Cambridge," Stevens said.

"I think one of the standard problems that Republicans had with [former President] Clinton was that they condescended to him and didn't understand his appeal," Stevens noted. "And I think that is one of the big failings the liberal intelligentsia has with Bush, they condescend to him intellectually."

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, thinks the TV comics in particular can hold tremendous sway but that the effect of their jokes is not always obvious. "It's very tricky to figure out the hidden inferences, whether someone is helped or hurt," she said. "Some people look at this stuff, which suggests Bush is an ordinary guy who makes quick, instinctive decisions, and say, 'Great!' "

The late-night circuit

Lest there be any doubt about the power of the late-night programs, consider that five of the Democratic presidential candidates this year went on "Late Night With David Letterman" to read top 10 lists, often poking fun at their own candidacies. Kerry, languishing in the polls in November, rode a motorcycle onto Leno's stage in a leather jacket and jeans -- an effort to show he was a regular guy.

The punch line here is that voters -- particularly young ones -- get their political educations from TV comedians. In fact, more than half of voters under 30 learn about the campaigns from late-night or comedy shows, according to a recent survey. More than one-quarter of young voters said they learned things from those programs that they hadn't gleaned from any other source.

While comedians may be near the heart of presidential discourse, the White House hardly seems preoccupied with monologues and top 10 lists.

The president's supporters have taken every negative stereotype and found its happier corollary. Rather than "simple," the Republican faithful describe the president as "clear-headed." Instead of "stubborn," they view him as "determined."

They remind detractors that Ronald Reagan suffered many of the same slings and arrows.

"A goodly number of people seem to have concluded there is no problem there, and some number have regarded the president's plain-spokenness as a positive factor," said Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas government professor who has followed Bush's career since he was governor of that state. "They would say, 'He means what he says and he says what he means.' "

Other observers said the observations of a few wags on the coasts don't really change opinions of moderate Americans.

"When Hollywood figures attack President Bush at awards shows and other venues, that backfires with people in the heartland," said Gary Bauer, a onetime presidential candidate and founder of the conservative American Values think tank.

Author Neal Gabler, who writes about the effect of celebrity and pop culture on American life, disagrees, saying the dumb jokes get at a truth about Bush that most Americans don't want to hear.

"There is a deep strain of anti-intellectualism and a deep skepticism toward anyone who is a thinker in this country," said Gabler, now a senior fellow at the Lear Center for the Study of Entertainment and Society at USC. "I think the White House finds some advantage in it. 'He is not a pointy-headed intellectual, everyone,' they imply. 'He is just like you.' ... He is not like John Kerry, speaking French fluently."

The 'b' word: 'brainy'

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