Clinton trying to change cartoon to 'I'm One of You'

ROGER SIMON

June 15, 1992|By ROGER SIMON

It was the day after he won the California primary, his 22nd straight victory, that Bill Clinton probably figured he would have to stick up a 7-Eleven in order to get his name in the news.

He knew the awful truth: Nobody wanted to read about him anymore.

And that's because we already know what his cartoon looks like.

That's right: his cartoon.

Roger Ailes, George Bush's former media wizard, once told me: "A presidential campaign is about cartoons. The media insists on them. They want every candidate's image summed up in a few words. So Bush becomes 'The Wimp.' Dukakis becomes 'The Cold & Icy Guy.' "

Amateur campaigns get angry with this. Professional campaigns do something about it.

"My job," Ailes said, "is to create a new cartoon for my candidate."

And so George Bush was transformed from "The Wimp" to "The Regular Guy."

We began reading stories about how Bush liked pork rinds and pitching horseshoes. He began wearing cowboy boots with the Texas flag on the sides. He threw snowballs and drove a semitrailer truck.

And, in an incredibly short amount of time, Bush's cartoon changed.

Mike Dukakis' never did. (He never understood about cartoons.) And so, from the first day of the campaign to the last, he was "Zorba the Clerk." "The Man Who Could Eat One Potato Chip." Or, as Jay Leno put it, "Dukakis is Greek for Mondale."

Believe it or not, the Bill Clinton campaign is a professional campaign. His people understand what has happened to their candidate.

They know it is not just the current fascination with Ross Perot that is keeping their man out of the headlines, it is the cartoon.

While Ross Perot has (so far) been allowed to pick his own cartoon -- "John Wayne Saves America" -- the cartoon hung around Bill Clinton's neck is: "Slick Willie."

You see Clinton on TV, all sort of plump and shiny looking, and you don't think: "President." You think: "Used Car Salesman."

Which is why two days after the California primary, Bill Clinton went on "The Arsenio Hall Show" and played "Heartbreak Hotel" on the saxophone.

He wore a flowered tie and jet black sunglasses and looked, at least to me, pretty cool.

It was his new cartoon: "I'm One of You."

I am not slick, he was saying. I sometimes do goofy, fun things just like you do.

His communications director, George Stephanopoulos, said Clinton was trying to show viewers that "he was a real person just like they are. That he loves music, that he loves to laugh at himself."

The Arsenio performance took place on a Thursday night. The following Sunday, "This Week With David Brinkley" interpreted it for the nation.

Filling in for Brinkley was Barbara Walters (which is a little bit like Pee-wee Herman filling in for Arnold Schwarzenegger.)

"Maybe it gets you young voters," Walters said of Clinton's sax playing. "Maybe it shows that he's a regular guy. Maybe the next thing that Bill Clinton does is go on 'Saturday Night Live.' Am I just such an old fogy that I thought that was undignified?"

The correct answer to this is: "Yes, Barbara, you are an old fogy. I'm sure you would have found it much more interesting had Bill Clinton told us what kind of tree he would like to be."

George Will, however, neatly managed to hit the other extreme with his response. (In the news business, hitting the two extremes is called "balance.")

"The networks now yawn when the president says I'm going to address the nation, and Bill Clinton is on television saying please pay attention to me, I'll play the saxophone," Will said. "We are witnessing the collapse of a whole conception of the presidency as central to America."

Jeez. Clinton goes on TV and plays an Elvis hit on his saxophone, and Will thinks it is the death of the Republic.

It is not. It is one man trying to reshape his image.

Which is why Clinton is now going on talk shows and trying to look relaxed, and next will go on MTV and talk to teen-agers.

Some commentators like to pretend a presidential campaign is about issues, but Clinton is smart enough to know better:

It's a cartoon show.

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