You Loved 'Em in D.C.Should politicians become TV stars? 3/09/2003 07:00:00 PM Eastern
By the time anyone reads this, former President Bill Clinton and the man he beat in 1996, former Sen. Bob Dole, will have already completed their first face-off on 60 Minutes, so don't look here for a review.
But I can say the idea of Clinton's having a regular role on television is one of those ideas that makes sense if you're a television executive: Clinton is pure television. People hate him or love him—he's Howard Cosell with better looks—and that usually makes for good television.
Best of all, whatever camp you're in, he's supposed to get only 45 seconds to make his point. Whether Clinton has ever spoken publicly for just 45 seconds doesn't seem to be a part of his political life covered in biographies of him, but, as I recall, in the time it took for him to talk to Americans, a new Web site could start, go public and go bust. When he spoke and said he felt our pain, I wondered if he felt all
of our pain—I mean, we had to listen to him.
Dole, by comparison, is funnier than most Americans know him to be, but most Americans—including many who voted for him—don't know much about him except that, as the Senate minority leader in 1994, he made life hell for Clinton and that he was a war hero who now has a bum right arm.
On television, unfortunately, some of the best stuff he says comes out as a mumble, which I'd say is a big negative in the television business. Yet, after he lost in 1996, he did the talk-show circuit and charmed nearly everyone with his self-effacing manner. After a big loss to Clinton, this wasn't a fake self-effacing manner. We did
feel his pain, every time we
However they work out on television, I wish they had not agreed to do it. This gig annoys me. Dr. George Gerbner, the famed and former dean of the Annnenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, known mostly for his studies of television violence, used to argue that television makes everybody the same size. Literally. He was opposed to TV cameras in court because, on the screen, the judge is as big as the alleged thug. And, so he said, the respect we should feel for the judge—our courtrooms physically put them on a pedestal—evaporates over time when we watch him or her become equal in size to murderers, serial killers and the like.
I happen to agree with Gerbner, in theory at least. America is built on the notion that everyone is equal, and so, I suppose, we should applaud that judges are equal to everyone else. But, symbolically, they're not. We have, or have had, a respect for judges, and certainly for presidents. Hey, the president has a theme song, virtually. He's important.
Which is why, when Clinton was asked on MTV what kind of underwear he wore, he should have laughed and not answered. Some found his answer (Jockeys) charming; others thought he was disrespectful to his own office. (For the same reason, it's also why even Americans who supported Clinton, as I did, will never ever forget his I-never-had-sex-with-this-woman performance because it was such a blatant and emphatic lie.)
And it's why, as much I kind of admire him for being out front about it, Dole shouldn't have agreed to appear in commercials for Viagra.
(I can accept a talk-show appearances; they're random and rare.)
The 60 Minutes
gig is just show biz, a TV show that each of these men will get paid for doing. It's beneath them. Couldn't they teach somewhere? Or write a great book no one would read? Presumably, Clinton and Dole like the idea because they feel, and executive producer Don Hewitt feels, that other political debate formats have just turned into shouting matches. Everybody involved with this 60 Minutes
feature insists these ex-politicians will keep their disagreements civil.
But, for the 90 seconds that they'll appear, it's hard to believe that what they're doing is any more than a gimmick that puts two
men of opposite politics together and allows each to repeat political solutions they've uttered a million times. On their first Sunday as the latter-day version of Shana Alexander and James Kilpatrick, Clinton and Dole were to comment on President Bush's proposed tax cut. I can tell you beforehand that their views won't surprise me, or anyone else. But most likely, they'll annoy me. Television as a second career is for sports stars turned color commentators, not for statesmen.
Bednarski may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org