Picking a president keeps becoming more of a joke

  • Ellen Goodman / Boston Globe columnist
  • Sunday, October 22, 2000 9:00pm
  • Opinion

BOSTON — Minutes after the curtain came down on Act Three — excuse me, Debate Three — Peter Jennings turned to Cokie Roberts to judge the winner and loser. She answered wryly, "We have to see what the late-night comedians say."

It’s been that kind of a year. It’s not that the country waits to hear what Leno and Letterman make of Gore and Bush. We already know what the comedians make of them: fun.

But the one-liners and zingers seem to ooze right out of the entertainment slot and into the political lineup. We get political impressions from impressionists. Stand by for the next stand-up.

How weird is that? As far as I’m concerned, the most bizarre moment of this campaign came when MSNBC’s Brian Williams interviewed (seriously) Jim Downey, a writer for "Saturday Night Live." Downey’s parodies of the debates were, he said, "a record of wisecracks I made while watching." But they were universally hailed as an important part of the campaign and used as a kind of teaching tool for the vice president of the United States by his directors, um, his staff.

So here, a political anchor did a news show on the political impact of a parody. Parody had become a player. Then Gore and Bush volunteered to do their own act on the very show that ridiculed them for a prime-time special before the election. Is this the subject of a "Saturday Night Live" skit or what?

I know that a whole lot has been said this year about political infotainment, about campaign 2000 lite. We’ve talked about Gore in earth tones and Bush as an empty suit. We’ve compared their warm and fuzzy appearances on Oprah.

But now it’s time to put the horse before the cart. This isn’t infotainment anymore, it’s entertation. We now have the entertainment first and foremost, dominating information. And maybe replacing it altogether.

Remember back in 1980 when an actual actor ran for president? Ronald Reagan’s challenge was to convince folks he could be a president, not just act like one.

Now it’s become routine, normal, even hip to judge candidates almost entirely by the standards of entertainment. Bush and Gore describe the campaign and the debates as a job interview, but it’s more of a casting call. Just this past week, Gore did "warmth" on Rosie, Bush did "edgy" on Letterman and they completed with self-deprecating humor at the Al Smith Dinner in New York.

They aren’t up for a performance review but a review of their performance. And instead of being employers or even citizens, we’ve all become drama critics.

In a post-debate surf, I compiled a small list of questions asked by the media: "Was the vice president too aggressive?" "Was the governor too vague?" "Do you want this man delivering lectures to you from the Oval Office for four years?"

But it wasn’t just the media that did these reviews. Everyone joined in. One Missouri salesman graded the debate this way: "Gore is pretty defensive in his body language." Another viewer talked about Bush "slumping into his suit." A Michigan woman preferred a leader who was "aggressive and outspoken" — Gore — while a focus groupie found him "tedious."

The vice president himself gave credence to the politics of reviews by describing his own three-night stand as too hot, too cool and just right. Goldilocks for President.

This kind of analysis skewed the debates and their spin as much as any parody. Bush got graded kindly for simply remembering his lines and covering up his flubs. Gore got credits for what he knows and debits for being a know-it-all.

If this were a job interview, Gore would have gotten it by now. But the casting call perspective flattens out the differences in experience and issues — who’s right? who’s wrong? — into differences of style — who’s comfortable? who’s not?

Over a decade ago, when political campaigns got a bit too personal, Duke University’s James David Barber once quipped, "Everybody knows what adultery is and nobody knows what the word ‘deficit’ means." Well in this race, few can tell you the difference between Gore’s prescription drug plan and Bush’s, but they can tell you the difference between Gore’s sighs and Bush’s smirks.

In a campaign that’s three parts entertainment, one part information, the drama critic citizenry changes the way decisions are made. Those elusive and wooed "undecideds" must get the distinct impression that they choose a president like a cast member for a TV show.

In California these days, there’s a bumper sticker that reads "Bartlet for President." A producer out there says that Martin Sheen, who plays President Josiah Bartlet on "The West Wing," is outpolling Bush and Gore. I think he was just kidding. But maybe I better stay up late and hear what the comedians say.

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