White House plugs into talk radio to turn up volume on health care

September 24, 1993|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- It may be remembered as the day Tommy and the Bull of WNOR met Al Gore, the day Barbara Carlson of KSTP asked White House spokesman Mark Gearan if he'd like to see her tattoo, the soggy day in September when radio talk show hosts invaded the White House lawn and a new chapter in Bill Clinton's talk show democracy was born.

Looking like some 21st-century phone-it-in government (the result of a Rush-Ross ticket?), the White House turned over its front yard yesterday to nearly 60 talkmeisters from around the country who proudly broadcast from rickety wooden tables and folding chairs.

We're live at the White House lawn! Let's go quickly to your calls.

At these talkmeisters' beck and call was a steady stream of officials such as Vice President Al Gore, Chief of Staff Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty and political strategist James Carville, who sound-bit their way around the country -- from WFIG in Atlantic City, N.J., to KPOW of Powell, Wyo. -- spinning the tale of health care reform from dawn to dark.

"It looks like a flea market," said White House aide Skip Rutherford, looking over the landscape of wires, mikes, headphones and wisecracking guys in baseball caps and loud shirts.

The White House had set up 200 phone lines, paid for by the radio stations, to take its case to the heartland and tap into what's become a sort of barometer of, and loudspeaker for, public sentiment.

Many of the nation's mightiest mouths, those who beat up on the president for a living, engaged in serious discussions with White House staff about sin taxes or Medicare -- or put Peter, calling from his car phone on Route 20 in Boston, through to the chief of staff.

But this was, after all, talk radio.

"George, we know you're the White House babe magnet," morning rocker Joe Bauer of KFMB in San Diego said to swank presidential adviser George Stephanopoulos. Not amused, the serious-minded staffer took off his headset and moved on to the next "booth" -- but the lively Hudson & Bauer show went on.

"Did you all hear the leaf blowers start up?" Mr. Bauer asked his morning listeners. "They're testing Al Gore's hair with those blowers. If Al Gore's hair doesn't move, he's ready for the day. Just a little insight from the White House. Right now, let's check ++ out some traffic and weather."

Dissent from Baltimore

Zoh Hieronimus of WCBM, the only Baltimore talk show host attending, read from the "Federalist Papers" and told her listeners she believes health care reform "is just more fascism."

Pat McMahon of KTAR in Phoenix said most of his callers thought the president's plan sounded terrific -- but also too good to be true. "It's just like this restaurant, Nick's, in Phoenix that has 256 items on its menu," he said. "You think it can't be any good. Well, Nick delivers -- the food is fresh and the price is right -- but I don't know if Bill can."

When there was air time to fill and no senior White House staffers around, this Limbaugh-less crowd went for the press corps -- interviewing CNN's Wolf Blitzer, ABC's Brit Hume, NBC's Andrea Mitchell or UPI's Helen Thomas -- or the White House aide who opens the mail for Bill, Hillary, Chelsea and Socks. They even interviewed each other.

Ms. Carlson, of KSTP in Minneapolis, who broadcasts a live show every Friday from her hot tub, roared above the din with her feisty chit chat, complaining about the lack of food being provided by the White House and the lack of high-placed staffers to schmooze with, but singing the praises of Washington. "Everyone's so nice. Where are all the murders taking place?"

Finally, the ample talk show host snatched communications chief Mark Gearan, whom she insisted on calling Mike, for her "Barbara Carlson & Friends" show.

"Would you come in my hot tub?" she asked during a commercial break.

"I'm married," he responded.

"So am I. . . . Would you get Bill or Hillary to come in?" she pressed on.

"You take Democrats in your hot tub?" he shot back.

Later, she upped the ante, asking Mr. Gearan if he'd like to take a look at the tattoo -- a pair of lips -- that graces her posterior. He gracefully declined the invitation, saying: "I was an altar boy."

Back on the air, Ms. Carlson, whose first ex-husband is Republican Minnesota Gov. Arne H. Carlson, talked more about "my new best friend, Mike Gearan," and then chirped on and on about shoes, cheese cubes and her quest for a caffeine-free Coke before segueing into a commercial.

"Ladies and gentleman, this is Barbara Carlson for Pet Food Outlet. I am very excited about dog food. . . ."

It was a long way from health care reform. But when you only travel as far as your front lawn for publicity, you have to take what you can get.

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