Campaign trail veers through `Dr. Phil' show

Bush, then Kerry sit down with their wives for taped `events'

Commentary

Election 2004

October 07, 2004|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

The 2004 campaign veered from the swing states to the surreal state of daytime television yesterday as John Kerry, following the president, submitted to a therapy session with on-air psychologist Dr. Phil.

During a one-hour Dr. Phil segment, Kerry confided to the TV psychologist that there was a period in his childhood when he was crying and homesick because his family moved around too much. Last week, President Bush told the self-help guru that his father's love made it OK if he tried something new and failed.

The man whose daytime show gets better ratings than NBC's Meet the Press used his access - the kind the Washington press corps would die for right now - in the service of psychobabble. He wanted to talk about the role of birth order in shaping personality and the difficulties of divorce and the pressures of raising children in the public eye.

The candidates tried to relate, getting as syrupy as the background music that is a fixture on a syndicated show where Dr. Phil may tell his guests they eat too much or are too scared to leave their husbands or might have a future serial-killer for a child.

When a campaign gets tough, the tough get their heads shrunk before an audience of 7 million. Kerry confided to Dr. Phil that after his parents died he rethought the nature of adulthood. "What you learn," he said, "is that we're all still kids."

Dr. Phil responded to Kerry's life lesson with the same bug-eyed enthusiasm as when the president noted that his father never foisted a career path on him but let him be his own true self. (Imagine if Bush felt he had to be president just like his dad. Oh, nevermind.)

The candidates, who appeared in separately taped interviews - both wearing chambray shirts, both sitting on couches, both propped next to their spouses - took questions from McGraw and the Texas shrink's his wife, Robin.

Though devoid of political content, the shows offered one or two revealing moments. Teresa Heinz Kerry, greeting Dr. Phil with a stern "How are you, Doctor" worthy of a sitdown with Freud, quickly got to her miscarriages, saying she calls those lost babies "pinkies."

"I had some miscarriages," she said, "so I have several pinkies in heaven."

Dr. Phil didn't know what to do with that so he changed the subject, but Teresa soon gave him more to work with. The mother of three sons with late husband John Heinz said she wished she'd had a daughter, breezing over the fact that she inherited two stepdaughters when she married Kerry. "If I have one good daughter-in-law, then that will make it up," she said. Of campaign life, she said, "It's not a life. It's a tunnel," and called herself "a witch" when it came to curbing her sons TV-time when they were little.

From the candidate himself, we learned how all his moving around as a kid meant no "Boy Scouting" or other childhood activities, and sometimes it was hard to keep friends. But, a rarity on daytime TV, Kerry did not blame his parents.

Later, Dr. Phil diagnosed the Kerrys in an aside: "I thought they were powerfully normal," he said. Earlier, he evaluated the Bushes as "genuine people" and then praised them as "Texans" as if that in itself were enough to earn them a clean bill of health.

The program didn't promote these shows as interviews. Each was an "exclusive Dr. Phil event." There's a difference. In an interview you ask questions and wait for the answers. In an event, you ask questions, but then you digress into the child-rearing philosophies outlined in your new book while your guests wait for you to stop talking.

Not that Dr. Phil didn't have an agenda. For one thing, he has some sort of global test on spanking, asking both candidates if they swatted their kids. The Bushes said they were more likely to send their kids to their rooms; Kerry confessed that he'd spanked one daughter once.

Dr. Phil: "Did it hurt you worse than it hurt her?"

Kerry: "Oh, God, it was awful!"

With Bush, Dr. Phil preached his buzzwords - the "authentic self" and "personal truth" - and plugged his book, Family First.

But of course the candidates were using Dr. Phil every bit as much as he was using them. In the interview at his Crawford, Texas, ranch, Bush was president-as-regular-guy, joshing about how Barney the dog is the only one in his family who will go fishing with him and how Laura gets upset when he tracks dirt and - ranch-talk here - "caliche" into his home.

Dr. Phil, turning no-nonsense politico, at times searched for campaign caliche of his own. There was none to be found, at least by the good doctor.

He asked what viewers would learn about Bush off-camera. "Would they find a sense of humor?" he asked. "Oh, yeah," the president said, but added that this presidency business is pretty serious: "The presidency is a decision-making job, and you make a lot of decisions, some of which you'll never see and a lot of which you do see."

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