Cartoon courtesy of Ward Sutton.

Mrs. Clinton Shows Up, Successfully
Joyce Purnick
Metro Matters
The New York Times
January 13, 2000

…Hillary and Dave, neighbors and friends, candidate and comedian, politician and antipolitician, enjoying a few laughs, reading a few lists, exchanging one-liners and a few teasing moments. Nothing tough, nothing rough. Just fun….

America is seeing the ultimate in the fusion of not just entertainment and news, but entertainment, news and politics. And truth be told, the candidates have no choice. They have to play. The public demands it.

We have gone from an appearance on the old, stodgy “Meet the Press” as political validation to softballs from Larry King to David Letterman….

Mr. Letterman chooses to be a funny man, not a political analyst. The question for us all to ask is why a candidate is compelled to get into the celebrity game….

[T]o succeed politically and sometimes journalistically these days, we have made it a necessity to enter the popular culture. To say no is to appear grim and out of it. Nor can a public figure afford to offend the Lettermans and Lenos, because they so affect the collective public psyche, somehow.

Last night, Mr. Letterman’s amiable executive producer, Rob Burnett, briefed the press. He was admirably forthcoming, more so than some dissembling political press secretaries. But he was briefing us about a bit of entertainment.

No wonder people are confused about the importance of celebrity, mistaking it for accomplishment. No wonder we elect actors and people who could be actors, and Donald Trump actually gets himself taken seriously as a political figure in some quarters.…

McCain and Bush Take to the Late-Night Airwaves
Don Aucoin
The Boston Globe
March 1, 2000

…A recent survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that nearly 1 in 10 Americans said they regularly pick up information about the presidential campaign from Leno, Letterman, and their cohorts.

But of those respondents younger than 30, the percentage was much higher—47 percent—who said they were informed “at least occasionally” by the late-night shows….

By venturing into the late-night arena that young people have always embraced as their own, a candidate’s goal is to achieve a quick image makeover as hip, fun, iconoclastic, and a good sport—in sum, a figure for whom young people should vote….

Unlike “Meet the Press,” “The Tonight Show” isn’t looking to break any earth-shattering news. “You can’t hope the whole republic goes in the toilet because you get 20 good minutes,” laughed Leno. “You can’t operate on that principle.”

Wake Me When It’s Almost Over
Frank Rich, Journal
The New York Times
January 29, 2000

[O]ur political culture has been in overdrive, trying to cook up creative story lines. There were the sagas of George W. Bush’s smirks (and alleged snorts), Al Gore’s sighs (and alleged tokes), John McCain’s tantrums, Bill Bradley’s heart flips, Warren Beatty’s mind games and, of course, Donald Trump’s sex life. There was the Naomi Wolf “alpha male” flap and the spirited debate over the true meaning of the Confederate flag.…

Given four contenders so eager to hug the center, conventional wisdom has it that this election is a battle over character—hence the endless dissection of smirks and sighs and the constant lookout for this year’s magic balm, authenticity. But none of the big four show any sign whatsoever of being sociopaths or, despite the Bickersons routine of Messrs. Gore and Bradley, compulsive liars. Nor, being politicians, will any of the four prove to be completely authentic or free of smarminess….

Dignity, Always Dignity
Gail Collins, Public Interests
The New York Times
January 28, 2000

…All the candidates for President have been promising to bring decorum back to the White House. But they’re campaigning in an age when politicians are forced to compete with entertainment celebrities for TV time and magazine covers, and the temptation to do something peculiar to get attention keeps expanding….

The longer you campaign, and the more tenuous your hold on success, the harder it is to resist the siren call of a Playboy interview or a gig as host of “Saturday Night Live.” Bill Bradley, who has been trying to expand the ever-shrinking privacy rights of a presidential candidate, was reduced this week to answering a question about whether he had ever cried after losing a basketball game. (No, but he cried after talking to a woman whose family didn’t have any medical insurance.) John McCain came under attack from Mr. Keyes (pre-mosh pit immersion) for having joked that Nine Inch Nails, of “God is dead and no one cares” fame, was his favorite band. Unmoved, Mr. McCain later added that he had “noticed at the MTV awards that Busta Rhymes was wearing a dress. And I’d like to know if I can borrow that for the swearing-in ceremony.”…

A New York Moment
Gail Collins, Public Interests
The New York Times
March 3, 2000

…A skill at guesting on late-night television has become a critical requirement for the presidential candidate of the 21st century, right up there with pretending to like surfing the Internet. These programs have become such a critical part of our political culture that the Center for Media and Public Affairs has an ongoing project counting the jokes told about the candidates. Mr. Bush was the presidential candidate most frequently made fun of over the last year, the object of 293 late-night sallies, followed by 275 for Mr. Gore.

“It’s all about foibles and foul-ups and physiques,” said Bob Lichter, the Center’s president.…

Do you understand now, people, why Al Gore is in his cabin doing stomach crunches while he flies around campaigning? A health plan is all well and good, but nobody is going to listen to policy from a guy with flabby abs.

The Laugh-a-Minute Oval Office
Susan Silver, Op-ed
The New York Times
May 4, 2000

I enjoyed Bill Clinton’s comedy video for the Washington correspondents’ dinner, but does anyone share my uneasy feeling that it might have been the final straw in the unfortunate blurring of show business and politics?

Bill had great timing, did his facial shtick well and got the schlump walk perfectly. And I do feel I can call him Bill now. “Mr. President” sounds so serious for someone who looked so right hanging out with Stuart, the guy who puts his face in the copy machine in the TV commercial.

I’m worried, though, about what this will do to Al Gore and George W. Bush. Now that the bar has been raised so high, America will be looking for a major laugh riot talent in the next president of the United States….

I just hope no budding statesman out there thinks being an experienced, intelligent, hardworking politician is going to be enough from now on. That’s a pretty funny joke right there. But it’s on us.

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