Bill Clinton's sax solo on 'Arsenio' still resonates MEMORABLE MOMENTS

December 27, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

It was one of those TV images that leaps out of the clutter and burns its way into that place in the back of the brain called shared memory: Bill Clinton in Blues Brothers' sunglasses, honking away on that big tenor sax, while a million late-night bright lights danced and glistened off his golden horn. It was hot. It was symbolic. And it was resonant all right.

Clinton's saxophone-playing appearance on "The Arsenio Hall Show" in June, though, was widely mocked at the time by many members of the we-know-everything gang covering national politics.

It wasn't dignified. It demeaned presidential politics. It "coarsened" the discourse of democracy, to use the language that syndicated columnist George Will seems to use to describe anything that isn't white, male and borrowed from ancient Rome or Greece. Clinton was dubbed the "Elvis candidate," in part because he was playing (or rather gamely trying to play) Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel."

But such media mockery only reinforced the overwhelmingly positive messages emanating to the larger audience of voters.

Clinton as Sax Man. Clinton as Baby Boomer. Clinton with a sense of humor about himself. Clinton participating in a Southern-black-and-white-folks' strain of music. And, if you want to really get down, a case can even be made that it was Bill Clinton with his Excalibur.

But the main message was of Clinton reaching out to parts of the population that seemed to make some of his opponents uncomfortable. He was playing the saxophone on a show whose host was a young, black man who had a big audience of twentysomething men and women from just about every ethnic group.

That TV appearance, coupled with a similar one two weeks later of Clinton in a town hall meeting on MTV, coincided with a turning point in the popularity polls: Clinton started going up, while independent Ross Perot started going down.

Of course, since the "Arsenio Hall Show" and MTV appearances were calculated by Clinton and his advisers to send a message of reaching out, it's fair to ask whether we should celebrate such manipulation.

Maybe not, but those appearances were among the most important TV moments of 1992, and they will be thought about as viewers reflect on the TV year.

MTV and the "Arsenio Hall Show" are part of a larger movement: the change from white-male hegemony to a multicultural America. The fragmenting of the TV audience into many different groups determined by age, gender and other factors goes hand-in-hand with the fragmenting of the body politic. Clinton and his staff understood that as no one else in the election did.

In looking back at the TV year, the overall movement of candidates ignoring network newscasts and Sunday morning talk shows for niche cable channels and syndicated programs should also be applauded. Yes, something is lost when candidates refuse to submit to sharp questioning from the likes of Peter Jennings. But what's lost is more than made up for by the gains in terms of relevancy and inclusion.

The images of Clinton as Sax Man and Clinton looking comfortable in a sea of twentysomething faces on MTV merge and further resonate with other TV pictures of Clinton reaching out. Clinton on the bus trips to heartland America. Clinton intently listening to all those voices during his economic summit earlier this month in Little Rock.

It wasn't the first time that television was the place where America found the pictures that would shape its vision of the future. But 1992 was the first time those pictures were found on late-night, syndicated, entertainment programs and on cable channels dominated by U2 and Madonna.

TV MOMENTS WORTH THINKING ABOUT

1. The instant pictures of rioting in Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict, which might have caused even more rioting. Local news stations ran video photographed from helicopters live, raw, red-hot and unedited

2. Murphy Brown's baby and Dan Quayle's cow. Was it really a top of Page 1 story when Vice President Quayle criticized TV character Murphy Brown (Candice Bergen) for having a baby out of wedlock? Yes, it was, and it deserved such coverage. Quayle was politically calculating in his attack, but the debate was about race, women's roles, men's roles, family values, television, who controls the manufacture of national culture and 10,000 other great issues.

3. Ross Perot on CNN's "Larry King Live." No two players -- Bill Clinton included -- had more to do with changing presidential campaign tactics in '92 than Perot and King. Their act won huge ratings and seemed to bring people into the political process in a way many of those people had never known.

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