Millions tune in to see Bush take his turn in Oprah's interview chair

Wednesday, September 20th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Daily runs, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fast-food tacos and memories of his days as a Little League baseball player.

The millions who tuned in to Oprah Winfrey's nationally syndicated talk show Tuesday learned that these are a few of George W. Bush's favorite things.

Eight days after Vice President Al Gore appeared on her show, Ms. Winfrey welcomed the Texas governor and pressed him to reveal details about his personal life – everything from his favorite foods to a time when he needed forgiveness. Mr. Bush recounted his decision to stop drinking 14 years ago, teared up as he talked about the birth of his twin daughters and declared that he wasn't out to avenge his father's defeat in the 1992 presidential election.

Such is the up-close-and-personal nature of modern campaigns. Less than a decade after such venues were widely considered unpresidential, Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore are sprinting from one TV show to the next, hoping to be seen as more human and to win the support of casual or indifferent voters.

"They're realizing ... half the country doesn't even vote, and they want to reach the masses from an everyman's perspective," said Jeff Ross, executive producer of NBC's Late Night With Conan O'Brien. "At some point, they have to get out there and show they have some personality."

Already this year, Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush have appeared on The Late Show With David Letterman (though Mr. Bush was seen via satellite). Mr. Bush also has visited The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, as has Green Party candidate Ralph Nader.

Tuesday night, as if to trump Mr. Bush's Oprah appearance, the vice president made a Tonight Show cameo – his third TV show stint in eight days.

Even Joe Lieberman, Mr. Gore's running mate, has gotten in on the act, yukking it up with Mr. O'Brien and singing "My Way."

Visiting Regis

On Thursday, Mr. Bush is scheduled to appear on Regis Philbin's nationally syndicated show. Also this week, he has done interviews with Paula Zahn on Fox and Diane Sawyer on ABC, and his campaign was hoping for a Late Show appearance before learning that Mr. Letterman wasn't taping.

"Now it's considered de rigueur," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Governmental Studies. "It's kind of a mandatory expectation, at least by the young and those who are not connected to the issues and policy."

He also called it "totally undignified," adding: "I don't blame the candidates. They're doing what they have to do to win. But the American people just have no standards anymore."

When Mr. Bush strolled into Ms. Winfrey's Chicago studio on Tuesday, he got an introduction more suited to a Hollywood celebrity than a Republican standard-bearer.

"W, W, W is in the house," heralded Ms. Winfrey, who then spent an hour cajoling Mr. Bush to reveal his darkest secrets and deepest desires.

He offered only glimpses. When asked to recount a time when he needed forgiveness, Mr. Bush answered with a quip: "Right now."

"I'm looking for specifics," Ms. Winfrey said.

"I know you are," the governor quickly replied, "but I'm running for president."

Nothing new

Candidate appearances on entertainment programs are nothing new in American politics.

In the early days of late-night television, Richard Nixon played the piano on The Jack Paar Tonight Show. And in 1968, Mr. Nixon made a cameo on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, turning the show's famous punch line into a question: "Sock it to me?"

Entertainment TV became a campaign staple in 1992. Bill Clinton donned Blues Brothers-style sunglasses and played the saxophone that year on Fox's hip Arsenio Hall Show, and Ross Perot announced his presidential candidacy on CNN's Larry King Live.

Entertainment Weekly magazine dubbed 1992 the "Couch Potato (sorry, Dan Quayle) Campaign."

"There's a place for the Oprah-ization of politics," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, senior associate at Claremont (Calif.) Graduate University. "But it can't be instead of serious discussions of each candidates' agenda – the back and forth, the openness with journalists, the openness with voters in a town hall situation."

'Low-propensity voters'

The presidential contenders are willing to appear on entertainment programs, analysts say, because those shows reach so-called "low-propensity voters" – political independents who don't automatically grab the newspaper each day for campaign news and aren't even sure they'll vote.

By appearing on Ms. Winfrey's show, candidates can appeal directly to a large female audience. By appearing on Mr. Letterman's show, they can reach a broad audience. By appearing on Mr. O'Brien's show, they can try to engage the young and hip.

"It's topical," said Mr. Ross, executive producer for Mr. O'Brien's show. "Anything topical is good. But we're going to have fun with it. Nobody is going to come on and talk policy. These guys are smart. They know it. The policy will come up, but it will come up in a comedic way."

And people are paying attention.

More than half of those polled nationally earlier this year by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reported that they "regularly" or "sometimes" gleaned political information from late-night TV, comedy shows and MTV.

The younger the respondents, the more likely they are to take political cues from such programs. Forty-seven percent of those between 18 and 29, for example, said they regularly or sometimes use late-night TV as a source for political information – nearly three times as many as those 50 or older.

Emotional moments

Mr. Bush's appearance Tuesday came just a week after Mr. Gore visited Ms. Winfrey's show, speaking emotionally about his family.

Mr. Bush, too, was emotional while discussing his marriage and the birth of his twin daughters. He also talked about his deep love for his parents, former president and first lady George and Barbara Bush.

Asked his favorite dream, Mr. Bush displayed some wit and self-deprecating humor. He didn't answer verbally but raised his hand as if he were taking the oath of office for president. At least that is the way Bush aides explained his hand signal after the show.

He also said it is more difficult being the son of a president than being a presidential candidate.

And when asked the biggest misconception that people have about him, he replied: "I'm running on my daddy's name. You know, if my name were George Jones, I'd be a country and western singer.

"I've lived with this all my life," he said, noting that the same charges were made against him when he first ran for governor in 1994.

No revenge in mind

He dismissed Ms. Winfrey's inquiry about whether he was running to restore "the family name and legacy" after his father's defeat in 1992.

"Not really," he answered. "What you're saying is, 'Are you running for revenge?' Revenge is such a negative thought. I'm running for positive reasons."

The GOP nominee discussed his religious faith, saying he knows for sure "that there is a God. That's what I believe with all my heart. I know I'm a blessed person."

"I've been dealt a pretty good hand in life," he said when asked if he considered himself lucky.

Mr. Bush said that Mr. Gore is a formidable opponent and that the race is "tight enough to give me white hair." But he added that he believes he will prevail.

Aides to Mr. Bush later described his appearance on the show a "home run."

"Shows like this one let people see what Governor Bush is really like, and how he responds in a natural way," said communications director Karen Hughes, a former television reporter.

Candidates once worried that such venues would make them appear less than presidential. Now they come to such appearances totally scripted, bearing humorous "Top 10" lists and prepped to discuss some of the most intimate details of their lives.

"There is very little left unscripted in politics," said Dr. Jeffe of Claremont Graduate University. "I don't know what else we can do short of putting them in the Big Brother house and filming them 24 hours a day until they forget the camera is rolling."