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Jewish World Review Oct. 23, 2000 / 24 Tishrei, 5761

Philip Terzian

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Consumer Reports

King or jester? -- I DON'T KNOW whether George W. Bush helped or hurt his cause by appearing on The Late Show with David Letterman this week, but it left me feeling a little uncomfortable.

I confess I tended to switch back and forth between Letterman and a rerun of Third Rock from the Sun, partly because the sitcom was funnier, and partly because I felt a little badly for Governor Bush, and couldn't bring myself to watch him suffer. Late-night chat shows are not his natural milieu, and David Letterman didn't help much by persistently asking "serious" questions about the Middle East and capital punishment. There's something a little discordant about discussing intifadas and executions in front of an audience that's primed to laugh.

To be sure, I may be wrong about all this. While the Governor seemed slightly awkward and ill at ease under the circumstances, it is possible all that worked in his favor. For while his answers tended to be brief -- perhaps a little too brief -- he got off some good lines, laughed at Letterman's jokes, was relentlessly pleasant and good-natured, and kept his dignity, more or less. Do the American people crave a president who is great on late-night television? I don't know. But let us hope we haven't reached a moment in our history when it's imperative.

Of course, in a perfect world, things would be slightly different. Imagine a presidential candidate telling David Letterman -- or Rosie O'Donnell or Regis Philbin or Oprah Winfrey or Jay Leno -- that he wishes them well, and is flattered by their invitations (or demands) to appear; but that the nature of the office they're seeking precludes performing on TV chat shows. Imagine such a candidate -- and keep on dreaming. We live in an imperfect orld, and so it's on to Oprah for a blessing, or Regis for a chance to behave like a buffoon.

It is safe to say that, while earlier presidents might have had similar opportunities, it would not have occurred to most to seize them. Abraham Lincoln never sought to join Petroleum V. Nasby on the platform, or even Mark Twain; and Franklin Roosevelt never shared a microphone with Walter Winchell, or traded quips with Charlie McCarthy. At one time the president was perceived as a kind of republican monarch, and the dignity of the office was considered a sacred trust. We still think of presidents as semi-royalty -- consider the presidential seal on lecterns, or the ever-increasing retinue and praetorian guard -- but our idea of dignity has certainly changed.

Political archaeologists are bound to argue about when that happened. Some would ascribe it to Bill Clinton, playing his saxophone in sunglasses for Arensio Hall, or answering questions about his underwear from a giggling teenager on MTV. Others would cite Richard Nixon who, after losing his race to be California governor, and considered politically dead, played the piano on Jack Paar's program in 1963. A few years later, when Nixon had been resurrected and elected to the White House, he did his old friend, TV producer George Schlatter, a favor by appearing for three seconds on Laugh-In before the Inaugural: "Sock it to me?"

Whoever is to blame, the damage has been done. When David Letterman proclaimed that "the road to the White House runs through here," all the candidates duly obliged. When his poll numbers dropped in relation to Al Gore's, George W. Bush paid obeisance to Oprah, planted a kiss on her copious cheek, and swiftly rebounded. Al Gore pretended to hypnotize Regis Philbin to cluck like a chicken, and submitted to Rosie O'Donnell's patented fawning. On Saturday Night Live Gore made light of his ill-mannered debate style, and Bush deliberately mispronounced words. For the cover of te latest Rolling Stone -- which regards its endorsement of Al Gore as strictly a "no-brainer" -- the Vice President of the United States appears in a windblown pose, in open-neck shirt and khakis that clearly emphasize what Inside Media magazine calls his "national endowment."

Well, as Clausewitz might have said, politics is the extension of war by other means, and there are no higher stakes than the keys to the White House. Candidates will do what they have to do, in accordance with the spirit of the age. What is saddening is that voters clearly want some vivid contrast to Bill Clinton, whose puppylike pursuit of TV and movie stars, and Oval Office onanism, have made the presidency a minor embarrassment.

To paraphrase Governor Bush, it won't be difficult restoring honor to the White House -- both Clintons depart in January -- but dignity will take some effort. And, perhaps, there's still hope, even on the David Letterman show. In George W. Bush's "Top Ten" list of things he would do in the White House, number two seemed most appropriate, and got the biggest laugh and round of applause: "Give Oval Office one heck of a scrubbing."

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2000, Philip Terzian