Laughs of the party

January 25, 2000|By Josh Ozersky

TV CRITICS and political pundits -- nearly indistinguishable job descriptions these days -- were falling over each other recently to crown Hillary Rodham Clinton for her triumph on "The Late Show with David Letterman."

"It was difficult to see why she ever demurred in the first place," cooed the New York Times, while the New York Post was more cynical, noting that while the first lady had "taken heat for her carpetbagger status," she "kept her diplomatic cool" in Mr. Letterman's withering presence.

Mrs. Clinton was in fine form on the Letterman show. She is the hippest of presidential spouses (not a difficult feat) and her readiness with sophisticated and poised small talk is the least of her many merits as a candidate. But none of those merits was addressed on Letterman. So why was the show being covered as news?

It's a question worth asking, even though we have gotten all too familiar with the concept of politics as show business.

If anyone doubted that Mrs. Clinton was as likable a person as New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, "The Late Show" appearance surely eased those apprehensions. But as everyone, and New Yorkers in particular, is well aware, you don't elect people because they are likable.

Good political forum

The fact is that the entertainment media, old and new, are necessarily forced to deal with politicians as if they were entertainers because no other occupation is worthwhile on TV. An appearance on a show like Mr. Letterman's is a godsend for a candidate like Mrs. Clinton, who holds some extremely controversial views.

Her consensus-oriented stand on same-sex marriage, for example, has alienated her supporters on the left, while she is despised by conservatives for her technocratic liberalism.

To go on Letterman and present her top 10 reasons for showing up presents the first lady with a matchless marketing opportunity. She can "brand" herself as a good egg, not as the tight-lipped shrew cartoonists like to draw. She can have a bit of sport at Mr. Giuliani's expense.

What she can't do, however, is give voters a reason to vote either for or against her. And that is really the worst thing about political appearances on entertainment shows. Politicians get a free ride by appearing on the shows, depending on their courage or desperation. The shows themselves are conferred with a bogus prestige. But when all is said and done, only the interests of "positioning" a product have been accomplished.

An honest debate between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Giuliani would have plenty of entertainment value -- their gag writers would see to that -- but would be leavened with enough information to at least give voters a sense of what they want to do besides get elected.

Things were supposed to start changing with the 21st century, but in fact the Age of Reagan is still with us. Appearances like Mrs. Clinton's on Letterman suggest just how valuable a boring but serious person can be.

And Mrs. Clinton can be just as boring as Vice President Al Gore or anyone -- if we would only give her a chance.

Josh Ozersky writes for the online publication The Boob. He wrote this for Newsday.

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