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Political Stage Is Next for `Idol' Stars

Taylor Hicks and other finalists will meet with Bush after he finishes up with Tony Blair.

July 28, 2006|Jim Puzzanghera | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — "American Idol" will reach the pinnacle of political validation today when President Bush welcomes this year's winner, Taylor Hicks, and the show's nine runners-up to the White House.

It's not as if the blockbuster Fox show needs more publicity. The season's finale drew 36.38 million viewers, behind only the Super Bowl and the Academy Awards this year, and its 10 top performers are in the midst of a summer concert tour.

But Bush could use a ratings boost -- for months, polls have consistently shown fewer than four in 10 Americans approve of his job performance.

It's the first time "American Idol" stars -- or those from any reality TV show -- have earned a White House meeting. Hicks, along with Katharine McPhee, Elliott Yamin and the show's other finalists, will visit Bush in the Oval Office this afternoon, give him a gift and pose for pictures.

Although the president is following a time-honored tradition of hosting popular champions at the White House, the juxtaposition with world events could strike some as a bit jarring. Earlier in the day, Bush will meet with British Prime Minister Tony Blair to discuss the battle between Israel and the Lebanon-based Hezbollah militants, and the continuing sectarian violence in Baghdad.

"It can be tricky, when the Middle East is falling apart, to be spending time with the winner of 'American Idol,' " said Darrell West, a political scientist at Brown University in Rhode Island. "There's the risk that people will ask, 'Doesn't this guy have something better to do? Shouldn't he be solving foreign crises?' "

The "American Idol" visit was scheduled weeks ago to coincide with the performers' concert in Washington tonight. And although Bush is looking forward to meeting the singers, "the focus of his day will be the meeting with the prime minister of the United Kingdom," said White House spokesman Peter Watkins.

Susan Whitson, first lady Laura Bush's press secretary, suggested the meeting around the time of the "American Idol" season finale. Whitson was Hicks' ninth-grade English teacher at Hoover High School in Birmingham, Ala.

"All I did was ask if it might be something worthy of consideration. There definitely were higher powers that would approve it," she said. "I do think it's a neat show. It's a wholesome show."

"American Idol" is also a nice political fit for Bush -- even though it's unclear if he watches the show. A White House spokeswoman would only say Bush is "aware of the program."

Last fall, the conservative Parents Television Council rated it as one of the three most family friendly shows on TV. The group's top-rated program was "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," the reality show on which Laura Bush appeared last year from Biloxi, Miss., to highlight the plight of Hurricane Katrina victims.

"It's pretty safe cultural territory for the president," Robert Thompson, a professor of TV and popular culture at Syracuse University in New York, said of "American Idol." "There are times I feel like I'm watching an old 'Andy Hardy' show when I watch [it]."

Clearly, "American Idol" provides another attraction for the White House -- its phenomenal ratings.

For decades, presidents have gained a little positive coverage by associating themselves with champions -- Calvin Coolidge was the first to be photographed with World Series winners, in 1925, and former sportscaster Ronald Reagan turned honoring top athletes into an art form.

Now, with "American Idol" leading the way, the custom could embrace other icons of popular culture.

"It's quite an honor," said Fox spokesman Scott Grogin.

The session also provides a nice segue for the broadcast network into auditions for season six of "American Idol," which begin at the Rose Bowl on Aug. 8, he said.

Executives from other broadcast networks declined public comment, but privately they insisted they were not upset at the courtesy extended to the show.

One, who requested anonymity when discussing a rival's programming, discounted any publicity value for "American Idol."

"Given [Bush's] ratings at the moment, I'm not sure that's where I'd go to promote my show," the executive said of the event.

Alan Schroeder, author of "Celebrity-in-Chief: How Show Business Took Over the White House," countered that the invitation was not something to scoff at.

" 'American Idol' has already been validated by the ratings," Schroeder said. "But to have the White House imprimatur, that's sort of the ultimate validation of any performer ... and it's the kind of respectability that show business people crave."

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