Thursday, February 14, 2008
Perhaps you’re a seasoned veteran of Congress with a flair for bilateral coalition-building. Or maybe you’re a public policy savant whose national health-care plan is so comprehensive it ensures that every pet in America is eligible for the same kind of free, first-class medical attention that poodles in France enjoy.
None of that matters. There’s only one hard-and-fast requirement for success in presidential campaigning these days: We won’t grant you the power to raise our taxes, or even the power to cut our taxes, until you’ve proven you can make an appearance on Leno or Letterman and be at least as entertaining as a B-list Hollywood celebrity. And you have to do it in a way that enhances rather than diminishes your authority.
That last bit is the tricky part, of course. In 1992, after Bill Clinton made his famous appearance on “The Arsenio Hall Show,” “Meet the Press” host Tim Russert offered an assessment of the impact the man from Hope, Ark.’s performance would have on Election Day: “If people really thought you could get elected by playing the saxophone, there would be a lot more musicians running for president.”
WHEN SLICK WILLIE BLEW HIS SAX ON “ARSENIO,” HE ESTABLISHED HIMSELF AS A SOLOIST.
Clinton, of course, did get elected, largely on the strength of the saxophone mom vote. Still, had Russert substituted the word “bass” for “saxophone,” he might have sounded perceptive instead of dead wrong. After all, when Republican hopeful Mike Huckabee appeared on “The Tonight Show” recently, keeping time alongside Kevin Eubanks and the rest of Jay Leno’s house band, he was entertaining, sure, but authoritative?
Typically, a bass player isn’t even the president of his own group, much less the president of the world’s greatest nation. In fact, he’s not even the vice president of his group – the guitarist is. A bass player is basically the musical equivalent of the speaker of the House: The guy behind the guy behind the guy. Unless the band he’s in has two guitarists, and then he’s demoted to president pro tempore of the Senate.
When Slick Willie blew his sax on “Arsenio,” he established himself as a soloist, a man who deserved a spotlight at the center of the stage. Huckabee, on the other hand, presented himself as a sideman, a supporting act, not the marquee name. Maybe he’d make a good secretary of agriculture or something
What’s scary about the future of this country is that Huckabee has been the most engrossing late-night burlesquer to date. At least he had a specific talent to tap. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have simply gone on “Late Night” and recited Top 10 campaign promises lists drafted by David Letterman’s writers. “We will finally have a president who doesn’t mind pulling over and asking for directions – am I right, ladies?” Clinton hammed. “To keep the budget balanced, I’ll rent the situation room for sweet sixteens,” Obama barked in a robotic staccato.
Despite the fact that Senator Clinton is endowed with a powerful but hard-to-modulate public address system instead of a regular human voice, she still managed to infuse her punchlines with more comic nuance than her rival. Paradoxically, this was a strike in Obama’s favor: While both candidates proved they’re game to mouth whatever inanities their puppet-masters concoct for them if it can potentially advance their interests, Obama’s ineptness signaled a greater sense of unease with the endeavor. Or maybe he just didn’t get the jokes.
In contrast, John McCain used his recent “Late Night” appearance to reinforce his stature as the planet’s funniest ex-POW. “My fellow Americans,” he earnestly intoned while sitting behind a presidential desk, “a buddy of mine once dared me to drink a quart of motor oil. I drank two, and made 40 bucks.” It was a perfectly executed bit of throwaway absurdism, but it conjured the specter of Larry “Bud” Melman a little too vividly to help McCain at the polls much. Still, he’d make a great addition to Dave’s cast of occasional oddball contributors.
For his recent appearance on “Letterman,” John Edwards took a different approach than his colleagues: No Top 10 lists, no sketches, just glib but unscripted repartee with Dave. Except for his usual tics – pleased-as-ecstasy-laced-punch optimism, otherwordly Tom Cruise cackle and power-grin – he made it through the gauntlet with relative grace. He seemed quick, candid, his own man – a potential president, in fact, until Letterman asked him if he could mess up his hair a little bit. “You want to? Go ahead,” Edwards cheerily agreed, and in that very moment, one could actually feel Kim Jong Il’s finger inching closer to the doomsday button.