Candidate Camera Popularity-starved politicians pump up their mass appeal with TV-show cameos


WASHINGTON -- Imagine the damage Rep. Jose Serrano could do if he had an agent.

Character parts? He can play those. Serious drama? No problem. Comedy? Just give him the script. This New York Democrat, who has done just one TV cameo, still thrives on his political job but is simply bored with C-SPAN. He wants prime time.

"To this day, people stop me in the hallways and say, 'Hey man, I saw you on "Law & Order." When are you going back on that show?' " says Serrano. "We who are in Congress think the whole world knows us. But everybody watches the TV shows. They remember them."

These days, "making it" doesn't necessarily mean getting to debate Social Security with Tim Russert, but scoring your 30-second walk- on during prime time.

There's even a new sit-com that relies on cameos by Washington insiders for much of its humor -- "Lateline," premiering tonight on NBC. The pilot, which focuses on a newsroom struggle over the program's anchor, gets comic relief from the likes of gay-rights activist Candace Gingrich and right-winger G. Gordon Liddy, who show up to debate same-sex marriage.

When Serrano heard about all this, he seemed ready to rush the set.

"Ooh! I like the sound of that show," he said. "I hope they put me on!"

Ever since candidate Richard Nixon appeared on "Laugh-In" in 1968, politicians have used entertainment TV to increase their popularity, warm up their images and amuse themselves. But lately, politicians have popped up in more pictures than "Zelig." After all, even a moderately successful prime-time show plays for at least 20 million TV viewers in a single night.

The ranks of the powerful are not fazed by critics who say they are belittling their office by talking earnestly to characters who are actually fake. Instead, they see the cameo as a way to prove they indeed have humor, warmth -- or at the very least, a pulse.

A future episode of "Lateline" has Minority Leader Richard Gephardt trying desperately not to look wooden in a skit with former Labor Secretary Robert Reich. In a plot involving the mistaken report that comedian Buddy Hackett has died, Gephardt and Reich sing "Shapoopee," a number Hackett made famous in "The Music Man." Reich does Hackett's three-legged chicken routine, in between self-deprecating jokes about his height.

Gephardt, a Democrat who may run for president, says he is not afraid of appearing undignified because he doesn't try to be anything other than himself, although he is expecting, "a good round of sarcastic comments from my colleagues after this airs." Still, he thinks the appearance will serve him well, particularly since he can't seem to get recognized as a congressman and is usually mistaken for a weatherman.

"I'm often confused for other people in public places -- I get a lot of Jack Kemp, I'm Dan Quayle, people think I'm a professional golfer, a newscaster, insurance salesman and others," he says. "This might help ... I have a line where I say, 'This will make me.' "

And Reich says his star turn was the perfect diversion for an incurable ham, as he is known to be. And he didn't see it as a great departure from the standard news show with battling pundits.

"Everybody knows that public-affairs programs are really showbiz in disguise," says Reich, who took his own stab at the form in "The Long and The Short of It," a public-affairs show with former Wyoming Republican Sen. Alan Simpson. "Senators and congressmen and others pitted like pitbulls against one another -- that's a circus and that's entertainment."

For some, it is a disturbing trend. Critics say the wall dividing politicians from performers is crumbling. Lawmakers play caricatures of themselves, or act in made-up roles flavored by their personalities, blurring the line where fiction ends and reality begins.

"Our politics are turning into mere spectacle," says Mark Crispin Miller, a New York University media studies professor. "Politicians can pass very easily between fact and fiction, and frequently do. It's almost impossible to find a boundary line."

Politicos are insulted at this suggestion, and say they can better serve their constituents by being more prominent. It just so happens that getting such clout is enhanced by snagging a TV show -- even one with a lot of make-believe.

"It's a sign to people in your district that you're a person other people think is somewhat important and noted," said Rep. Barney Frank, a Democrat from Massachusetts, who is to appear on a future "Lateline" episode. "Actually, it's helpful to do something like this. It can enhance your ability to do something for your district."

Still, not many politicians will be quitting their day jobs. For one thing, many simply just can't get themselves ready for prime time.

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