MTV fans stop rocking, toss softballs at Clinton ON POLITICS


June 18, 1992|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

LOS ANGELES -- In Bill Clinton's seemingly never-ending quest for new television shows to conquer, his debut on Music Television -- MTV to its expanding audience in an estimated 55.6 million households -- turned out to be no challenge at all.

If there was any apprehension that the rebellious young generation that has taken to profane rap artists the way Clinton's own took to Elvis would throw him one curve ball after another, it was soon dismissed. The under-30 set, which is supposed to have things on its mind much different from those bothering elders, mostly asked him the same questions the oldsters have been posing to him all this year.

Clinton got a few headlines by saying with a grin that if he could have inhaled, he would have done the deed regarding the demon weed he tried to smoke as a Rhodes scholar in England.

And he titillated older political junkies by saying he would name Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York to the Supreme Court if he had the chance.

Clinton and Cuomo have been sparring for more than a year, but Clinton can afford to be magnanimous now that he has the presidential nomination within his grasp.

Whether Clinton made significant news in his MTV appearance, however, is almost beside the point. He managed to reach voting bloc that has been conspicuously and increasingly absent at the voting booth since the lowering of the voting age to 18. Democrats have been particularly alarmed by the trend during the Reagan years of young voters -- both the young professional climbers and blue-collar workers -- registering Republican.

One appearance by Clinton doesn't mean that this trend will now be reversed, but the indication that these voters are not all that different from the rest of the electorate in the issues concerning them today should be an inducement for all of the candidates to start talking to them as Clinton did.

As in the other audience participation television shows to which Clinton and Ross Perot have turned, and now even President Bush indicates he will join, most questions posed to the Arkansas governor were familiar ones ready made for boilerplate answers.

One MTV questioner asked Clinton to say why he should vote for him.

Another asked him what he would do about the federal deficit.

A third asked him if he would keep in touch with the young by appearing on MTV as president. Clinton -- surprise! -- said he would.

Not all of the questions, to be sure, were such softballs. But there was none of the kind of follow-up that candidates routinely encounter in press conferences.

That, in fact, is one of the prime reasons Clinton and Perot have elected to go on such shows: to reach their audiences with their views unfiltered by the press.

Considering the low esteem in which the news media are held these days, it's understandable that candidates not only take this route but also are applauded for it by the public. After the obstacle course of personal allegations in the press that Clinton was obliged to negotiate this year, fielding questions from a couple of hundred rock music fans is duck soup.

Whatever the quality of the questions, and Clinton's obvious political motive in going on MTV, the exercise was a worthwhile one.

The music network's offer of so much free time -- to Perot and Bush also, although they have not responded -- is part of an ambitious election-year project to educate its viewers on politics, also with the hope of increasing participation.

One prepared lead-in to a question segment made the point that this generation has not had the kind of young, attractive and inspirational leader that John Kennedy was in the 1960s, to capture its interest and involvement.

Clinton, who will be only 46 in August, has tried to be such a figure, but the personal baggage has undermined his effort.

"I want you to believe in your country again," he said at the close of his MTV appearance.

For many in his audience, unemployed or bogged down in debt incurred for a college education that is not paying off, and distrustful of all politicians, it's a big order.

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