Clinton, Bush try to show their human sides

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Sally Kohn: Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush try to show their fun sides on TV talk shows

Both needed a boost after slipping in polls, but they mostly failed, she says

Kohn: Can old-school, issue candidates survive in age of celebrity culture requiring relatability?

Editor’s Note: Sally Kohn is an activist, columnist and television commentator. Follow her on Twitter: @sallykohn. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

CNN  — 

Both Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush tried this week to show America their fun, human sides. And both pretty much failed.

They were valiant attempts. Bush appeared Tuesday in a highly coveted guest slot on Stephen Colbert’s premiere as host of “The Late Show.” And Clinton was a guest during the premiere week of the new season of “Ellen.” (The segment, taped Tuesday, will air Thursday.)

Sally Kohn

There were some moments of levity, to be sure: In an online-extra clip, Colbert made Bush read a more Trump-like answer in a mock prep for the next GOP debate, and a 5-year-old presidential trivia buff quizzed Clinton on “Ellen.” But I use “levity” here in relative terms – levity in the same way that, say, balloons add levity to a giant, dull, gray, heavy rock.

Clinton and Bush are both slipping in the polls – their sense of electoral inevitability thrown off track by more unpredictable – and thus more real-seeming – candidates such as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Part of the appeal of Trump and Sanders may be ideological – Sanders appealing to progressives and Trump to far-right reactionaries – but much of their success speaks less to what they are than what Bush and Clinton aren’t. Electorally speaking, Clinton and Bush aren’t stuck between a rock and a hard place. They are that rock.

Personal charm and charisma have always been factors in modern politics, especially since the rise of television; the candidate-as-rock-star dynamic that arguably began with Ronald Reagan hit warp speed with Barack Obama. It’s now almost expected that viable candidates deliver it: Supporters are no longer just voters but fans, even groupies. With branded T-shirts to match.

Where does this leave Clinton and Bush? Well, they have the money, the political machines and even the merchandise. They just don’t seem to have the personal pizazz.

The Clinton campaign acknowledged as much recently in interviews with The New York Times suggesting that the candidate would, suddenly, seek to show more heart and humor. In a tweet, progressive blogger Zaid Jilani wondered, “Do they just recalibrate her, like a robot? What if the servers go down, does she at least have offline mode?”

The appearances of Bush and Clinton on “The Late Show” and “Ellen” did indeed have that feel: “Now we’re in funny mode, but let’s not look like we’re trying.” Bush, leaning casually on one arm, poked fun at his “Jeb!” logo, saying the exclamation point “connotes excitement.” And after critiquing his brother’s fiscal performance as president, he joked to Colbert’s brother – a conservative voter, in the audience – “I want your vote.”

For her part, Clinton responded to critiques that she’d be one of the oldest presidents elected by saying she prefers to think about how she’d be “the youngest woman ever elected president of the United States.” And about Kanye West’s pledge to run for president in 2020, Clinton quipped, “If I’m running for re-election, wait!”

But that was about it. No question, Clinton’s interview was more softball than Bush’s – Ellen DeGeneres said at one point, “You are the smartest, most qualified person for this job” – but even under such overall amiable conditions, neither candidate managed to show his or her soft side. Generally, the appearances were as awkward as, say, watching Clinton dance with Amy Schumer and Pink. (Reader, it happened.)

Should how loose and personable – relatable – you are matter in elections? Obviously smarts and qualifications are non-negotiable essentials, but we’re all human, and we naturally want to vote for candidates we think would have our own best interests at heart. And, in part, likability is a proxy for the sense that a candidate “gets it” – gets us.

Either way, that horse has left the gate – politics and celebrity and the cult of personality (see Trump) are increasingly and inextricably intertwined. We may hope that the 2016 election will be about immigration reform and economic inequality and foreign policy and jobs and a host of other vitally important issues. But it will also be about “Ellen” and Colbert – and whether the celebrity culture has finally, completely subsumed politics. In the face of that, can old-school, issue candidates survive?

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