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Jewish World Review Nov. 9, 2000 / 11 Mar-Cheshvan 5761

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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How do you cross the line
when the line has vanished? -- WHEN AMERICANS look back upon the presidential election of 2000, it won't be the ideological differences between the two major party candidates that they will talk about; it won't be the candidates' positions on Social Security or education; it won't be the disputes about budget numbers.

No . . . 2000 will be remembered as the election year when the line between amusement and politics was crossed over and back so many times that the line became invisible -- meaningless.

For years we have been approaching this. It began when candidates started to realize that if they appeared on entertainment-and-talk shows, they would reach more potential voters than if they spoke only on the traditional political-analysis shows. From the "Tonight" show to "Arsenio" to "Larry King Live" to MTV . . . the so-called "non-traditional media" became all-but-required stopping-off points for presidential candidates.

But what happened this year reached a level of weirdness that few people would have been able to predict a quarter-century ago. Yet -- because all of this has transpired in a country that lately seems half nuts most of the time anyway -- it was greeted with not much more than an amused shrug.

Here's what took place:

"Saturday Night Live," as it has always done, made fun of the presidential candidates in skits. That was no surprise.

But Al Gore's advisers -- evidently impressed by how astutely the television program zeroed in on Gore's stylistic flaws and quirks after the first debate -- decided to confront the candidate about how he was coming across.

The advisers didn't get tapes of Gore himself, and ask the candidate to watch his own performances and learn.

No . . . they played the "Saturday Night Live" mockery for Gore. They had him watch it.

And then they told the press about it.

So an actor poked fun at Gore on television -- and his advisers, apparently reasoning that if this was how millions of people were going to think about Gore, then Gore ought to think about himself that way, instructed him to look at the make-believe Gore. And, for whatever reason, the advisers informed reporters that Gore was studying the make-believe Gore.

Gore was then questioned about his opinion of the make-believe Gore who was exaggerating his worst flaws during the most important period of his life. Gore -- what else was he going to say? -- said he thought his flaws were hilarious as represented by the make-believe Gore.

Then -- and here is where the line was crossed once and for all -- Gore and Bush were asked to portray themselves on a prime-time "Saturday Night Live." They would not be required to be in each other's' presence -- they could imitate the appearance of a debate, taping their acts at different times, and it would be edited to look as if they were together.

The script for the fake debate would require them to make fun of their stylistic failings the same way the make-believe Gore and the make-believe Bush had done on past programs. The real flaws that the show had been parodying were not what the producers wanted -- tapes of real campaign appearances were not good enough.

In other words, the flaws that "Saturday Night Live" had been parodying had to be done over by the real candidates -- "Saturday Night Live" had tried to make them look stupid all year by exaggerating their foibles, and now the candidates were being told that they should exaggerate the foibles even further. Bush's actual mispronunciations and Gore's actual embellishments weren't considered sufficient -- they had to give the show scripted mispronunciations and embellishments.

And they each said yes. They went to New York and imitated their own worst selves.

Why? Probably not because they each have such wry and self-deprecating senses of humor. Rather, they each succumbed to a kind of comedic blackmail -- they knew that if their opponent agreed to go on, and they didn't, they would be depicted as humorless and grim, and this might make them lose the election.

So they each did it. You can assume that, by late in the election campaign, the two men didn't like each other very much. But -- desperate for every vote -- they became a slapstick comedy team. Partners.

Would Ike have done this? Would Woodrow Wilson?

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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