The Oprah Primary
Who won? Gore explained his famous kiss, but Bush planted one on
George W. Bush just had his first good week since the convention,
and there's only one explanation: Oprah. She can sell mediocre
books, why not slumping candidates? In the dog days of his
a__hole aside and the "subliminable" RATS ad, Bush swore he would
switch to campaigning on issues. But that was a short-lived
promise to silence critics worried about how quickly Gore had
closed the charm gap. Last Wednesday Bush admitted he would be
too busy this fall to reveal any details of his missile-defense
system. He conceded earlier that he was having a hard time
communicating the details of his tax cut. He has never dwelled
for long in the arcana of health care.
On Oprah, Bush was on friendly, issue-free terrain, where he
gained ground just by planting a big one, big time, on the queen
of daytime talk. The week before, Gore too had done well on
Oprah, but the kid who asked for extra-credit assignments was not
made for the confession format. Gore goofed by merely shaking
hands ("No kiss?" Oprah wondered aloud). Worse, he pulled the
curtain back only on Tipper's depression, rather than serving up
any dark night of his own soul. Bush, on the other hand,
delivered the emotional arc Oprah's fans tune in for, speaking of
God and his battle with alcohol. The money shot was a tear in his
eye, better even than Clinton's lip biting, as he described
Laura's difficult pregnancy. His eyes still glistened after the
His staff members were so excited by his performance that they
spun themselves into a whopper, telling reporters they had been
swamped with favorable calls from viewers around the country.
Problem was, the show hadn't aired around the country; it had
just finished taping in Chicago.
Have we come to the point that appearing likable on Regis and
Oprah is as important as doing well in the debates? Really, how
much do we have to like the guy whose job is grappling with
international crises? It's not as if we're going to be invited
over for hoedowns on Saturday night. Even Clinton could squeeze
in only 404 sleepovers a year.
In fairness, the talk shows do occasionally push candidates into
that potentially revealing place that lies between their
programmed selves and who they really are. We've seen that Gore
is not as stiff as we thought, and Bush can hold his own when not
scripted. But don't think these appearances are ad-libbed.
Appearing on Regis (with Susan from Survivor and a guy slicing
wood with his hand), Bush went through a wardrobe change so that
he could walk onstage dressed exactly like...Regis. Thank God
Kathie Lee retired, or he might have donned spandex.
Both candidates are trying to crack their late-night caricatures
by matching wits with the creators of those caricatures. When
Gore showed up on Letterman recently, he scored with his prepared
material ("I gave you the Internet; I can take it away"), a gag
the Modern Humorist, a website, claims Gore lifted. But the
payoff for Gore came when David Letterman joked that the show was
actually a fund raiser and that Gore would be out in the audience
"to collect your thousand dollars." The Buddhist temple just
hasn't had the same sting since.
But as Bush knows, you can get hurt by straining to keep up with
a trained comedian. When Bush appeared by satellite last spring
on Late Night, Letterman lobbed a seeming softball about his
saying he was "a uniter, not a divider." Bush said, inexplicably,
"That means when it comes time to sew up your chest cavity, we
use stitches as opposed to opening it up." The audience booed.
What could he possibly have been thinking? A few days earlier,
Letterman had cried while recounting his heart surgery.
America's chat culture, with its false intimacy and scripted
spontaneity, often gives the candidates just one more facile
disguise. If the ability to emote on Oprah is the standard for
the presidency, then 90% of the country is qualified. From Oprah
you can learn that the best gift Bush has ever given was a kiss
to his wife (don't parse that either), that he loves his kids,
and that he can sometimes deploy his mother's acerbic wit. But
if you're more worried about your Social Security check than
congeniality, I suggest you flip over to C-SPAN.