WASHINGTON — Facing criticism that he appeared disengaged from the disaster wrought by Hurricane Katrina, President Bush has been looking for opportunities to show his concern. But the White House will take the effort a step further today, venturing into untested waters by putting the nation's first lady on reality television.
Laura Bush will travel to storm-damaged Biloxi, Miss., to film a spot on the feel-good, wish-granting hit "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." Mrs. Bush sought to be on the program because she shares the "same principles" that the producers hold, her press secretary said.
In its standard format, the popular ABC series finds hard-pressed but deserving families, sends them away for short vacations and then, in a whirlwind of carpentry and appliance shopping, gives them new homes. This time, though, the show will broadcast from an underserved shelter near Biloxi, where a convoy of trucks stocked with everything from mattresses to pants will arrive, courtesy of Sears, one of the show's sponsors.
It's not clear exactly what Mrs. Bush will do -- reality shows are unscripted, after all -- but Tom Forman, executive producer and creator, said he is hoping that she'll just pitch in and help unload.
"I think we say, 'Mrs. Bush, the stuff is over here, the people are over there, could you grab the other end of that mattress?' " Forman said. Press secretary Susan Whitson envisioned something closer to her handing out clothing and thanking volunteers.
Whatever the first lady's role, the idea is to convey that people -- in this case, a major television network and the White House -- care about the thousands of hurricane victims who remain homeless.
"This is why it is so great the first lady is coming along, just to talk and hear stories and share tears and give hugs and remind everyone we are there for a long time and we are going to keep coming back and nobody has forgotten about them, including their government," Forman said. He said the episode will air in November.
The show has been likened to a modern-day "Queen for a Day." But it could be difficult to discern whose fortunes will be lifted higher -- the displaced victims of two hurricanes or the White House, which was widely perceived as slow to understand their pain.
Which is probably why the Bush team contacted the show for a booking instead of the other way around. "EM:HM," as it is known in Hollywood-speak, was ranked among the top 15 shows last season with an average 15.8 million viewers. Airing Sunday nights, it is considered one of the strongest family hours on television.
"We got a call from the White House saying, 'What are you doing and, if you need help, just let us know,' " Forman said. "We said here's what we're doing and if the first lady would like to join us, we'd love to have her."
Wading into nonpolitical waters to reach the masses is not a new strategy (think Richard Nixon's "sock it to me" appearance on the "Laugh-In" program decades ago or Bill Clinton more recently blowing sax on late-night television), but it is becoming increasingly popular lately as politicians strive to deliver messages directly to America, unfiltered by reporters.
Reality television is "taking that to the next level," said Chris Lehane, spokesman for Democrat Al Gore during the 2000 presidential campaign.
That makes Mrs. Bush something of a pioneer as she joins the ranks of Elton John, Randy Travis and Arnold Schwarzenegger as guests on the heart-warming show, which helps orphaned children, cancer survivors and others who have suffered tragedies. On Sunday's third-season opener, a handicapped-accessible home was built for a soldier who lost his leg in Iraq.
The star is Ty Pennington, chosen by People magazine in 2004 as "one of the sexiest men alive," making the show a sort of cross between "Habitat for Humanity" and "The Bachelor." But Whitson, Mrs. Bush's spokeswoman, saw a conservative message in the show's usual story line: the private sector doing good work, rather than waiting around for the federal government to do it. That, she said, was what the first lady wanted to endorse.
"I don't know that I would necessarily call it a 'reality' TV show," Whitson said, its recent Emmy for "Outstanding Reality Program" notwithstanding.
There may be political risks. "The Bushes have been trying very hard to make up for what they didn't do before.... But the fact that they are out in front on a top-rated show doesn't look like an act of altruism; it looks like an act of political recovery," said Bruce E. Cain, director of the University of California Washington Center in the nation's capital.
Then again, for most Americans, handing supplies to the needy before millions of prime-time viewers may be hard to view in a negative light, especially when it's done by someone as consistently popular as Mrs. Bush.
"She is his best validator and his most effective spokesperson," Lehane said. "My hunch is she'll end up being the most sympathetic person in the entire administration."