The road to the White House goes through Oprah

The candidates fight for couch time with Dave, Jay, Conan, Reege and the Queen of Talk.

By Joyce Millman
September 25, 2000 9:37PM (UTC)
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As the presidential campaign cranks into overdrive, the candidates are crisscrossing the country from greenroom to greenroom, bringing their messages to talk-show viewers everywhere. Over the past couple of weeks, Democrat Al Gore logged couch time with Oprah Winfrey and David Letterman. His running mate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, shmoozed with Jon Stewart (from Comedy Central's "Daily Show") and Conan O'Brien.

Republican George W. Bush also had his hour with Oprah. And he had his coffee with Regis Philbin, too, appearing on Reege's morning show Thursday wearing a snappy monochromatic tie and shirt ensemble, just like Reege. Green Party candidate Ralph Nader managed to visit Jay Leno right before Leno's "Tonight Show" was squeezed down to a five-minute monologue for the duration of NBC's Olympics coverage. A truncated "Tonight Show" was just fine with Gore, though, who made a surprise appearance Tuesday as Leno's cue-card holder. And remember -- if Bush had gotten his way, he'd be debating Gore on "Larry King Live," between commercials for Viagra and Depends.


Ever since candidate Bill Clinton blew his sax on "The Arsenio Hall Show" in 1992, talk shows have become a crucial stop on the presidential campaign trail. They're a way for candidates to get national TV exposure without having to worry about debates or equal time. They enable candidates to target specific voter demographics. (Oprah's daily TV audience of seven million is overwhelmingly female.) They give candidates the chance to clown with Letterman and Leno and look like self-deprecating good sports. Vote for me! I can take a joke!

Sure, the pundits usually scoff when candidates resort to the show-biz likes of "Oprah" or the "Late Show." But those show-biz gigs carry more weight with voters than a bucketful of opinion columns. This is a sad fact of modern politics: In order for a candidate to run strong, he or she can't afford to skip the talk shows. For instance, in a Newsweek poll released Sept. 16, at the end of the week in which he appeared on both "Oprah" and "Late Show," Gore had opened up a 12-point lead over Bush -- who had snubbed Letterman. (A Newsweek poll released Saturday had Bush pulling within two points of Gore, suggesting that he may also have gotten a bounce from his "Oprah" appearance.)

And the talk-show hosts are almost giddy with their election-year power. Winfrey hosted Gore on her Sept. 11 season opener; on her Tuesday show with Bush, she was full of herself indeed, boasting, "There were people on the street yesterday who told me that they were going to make their decision [about whom to vote for] after 10 o'clock this morning."


Ever mindful of her status as the Most Powerful Woman on the Planet, Winfrey approached the Gore and Bush interviews as if they were a sacred duty. Her goal, she told her audience on the Bush show, was to "break down the political wall of soundbites and practiced answers" and expose the "real" person behind the candidate. You could tell Winfrey was serious, because she interrupted Gore and Bush even more than she usually interrupts guests who have ceased to interest her. "I see America as a land of dreams, hopes and opportunities," intoned Bush with earnestly knit brow. "I wanna go behind the wall now," snapped Oprah mercilessly. I don't understand why Bush was so reluctant to debate his opponent; facing Al Gore for 90 minutes has got to be easier than keeping She Who Must Be Obeyed amused for an hour.

Winfrey has taken plenty of heat for focusing on the personal rather than the political in the interviews, and emphasizing character over issues (though she did ask a number of issue questions). But, I say, more power to her. After all, these are the same candidates who made "character" and "family values" -- that's code for "If elected, I'll keep my pants zipped" -- central themes of their stump speeches. Oprah met the candidates on their own soggy playing field and made them work. Under her persistent encounter-group probing ("Tell me a story about a time in your life when you sought forgiveness"), the frat boy shed sensitive-guy tears and the robot declared his love for his wife with a fervent romanticism ("she's my soul mate") worthy of Cyrano de Bergerac, if not Barry White.

What would happen if a candidate went on "Oprah" and collapsed into embarrassed giggles at her questions, refused to confess any sins or take a moment to "remember the spirit"? The candidate would get a one-way ticket to Dukakisville, that's what. The road to the White House goes through Oprah.


As for Letterman, he has been relentless this campaign season, keeping up a pit-bull attack on Hillary Rodham Clinton, Sen. John McCain, Gore and (especially) Bush. Ever since Hillary Clinton's appearance in January, Letterman (through his invaluable co-producer Maria Pope) has pursued major candidates as guest fodder with a new sense of purpose. Letterman's nightly "Campaign 2000" feature (hosted by the wholesome-seeming and bubbly Pope) no longer seeks just to annoy and humiliate -- Dave is daring candidates to accept (or reject) his invitations.

Letterman and Pope are positioning "Late Show" as the late-night talk show stop on the campaign circuit. And, sure, it's all a ratings strategy to beat "The Tonight Show." But, as Bush has learned, it's unwise to ignore Letterman. Dave has been gleefully, savagely roasting Bush ever since the candidate's people blew off Pope's phone calls asking Bush to take part in a "Late Show" presidential debate. (Gore accepted immediately.) Never mind that the debate format was supposed to include Dave as moderator, scoring based on the jai alai system and Don Rickles dropping his pants. When Letterman taunts you, you do not hide behind your campaign manager's skirts. Letterman is making Bush look like a big chicken with no sense of humor. In the talk show campaign universe, that's far worse than sharing a stage with a pants-less Don Rickles.


(Oh, you Republicans out there -- I can hear you defending Bush, making excuses like, "He has dignity" or "He won't lower himself to Letterman's level, like Gore." So let me remind you that campaign tomfoolery knows no party boundaries -- witness Richard Nixon on "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" in 1968. I bet if McCain were the Republican nominee, he and Gore would be going head to head in an immunity challenge on "Survivor" this very minute.)

But, I digress. Are presidential candidates manipulating the weaker-minded members of the electorate by engaging in jokey talk-show stunts and artificial banter? Well, yeah. But there isn't any part of presidential campaigning that's untainted by posturing, artifice, manipulation and pandering. Given all that, I think Letterman and Winfrey did a pretty swell job of facing down the candidates. On his Sept. 14 show, Letterman caught Gore off guard with direct, pugnacious questions about the Wen Ho Lee affair(!), which led to a few uneasy moments of vice-presidential squirming. ("I'm going to let the Justice Department speak to that.") Winfrey quieted applause for both candidates' education proposals (phonics and pre-K for everyone, woo-hoo!) with the pointed comment that, in the real world, local school districts decide matters like that. Look, somebody's got to be the bull detector -- why not Oprah and Dave?

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So how did the candidates fare on the talk shows? Here's a scorecard.

Gore on "Oprah" (Sept. 11) Why do they keep calling him stiff? Gore was relaxed and witty, giving Oprah plenty of personal "stories" and feelings 'n' stuff (when he wasn't circling back to his prescription-drug plan and the need to stay the course on the economy). Naturally, Oprah wanted to know about the convention kiss. Was it scripted? Was Gore trying to send a message? "I was trying to send a message to Tipper," he quipped, with his eyes all crinkly at the corners. You could tell he'd been practicing that one in the mirror for weeks, but, hey, it worked. Gore played along with Oprah's Cosmo-like "favorites" quiz; his favorite group is the Beatles and his favorite movie is "Local Hero," a surprising, obscure choice. (Presumably, Gore was drawn to the environmentalist theme of this lovely, Scottish-made fable about an oil company lawyer who goes to Scotland to try to buy up a coastal village as a refinery site but is enchanted by the land and the people.) The closing minutes were given over to one of those Oprah "Remembering Your Spirit" features -- Gore and Tipper in a soft-focus video, holding hands and cooing about how "blessed" they are. The show ended before they could start seriously making out.

Best line: During Oprah's quiz, when asked to name his "favorite thing to sleep in," Gore answered coyly, "A bed." No "boxers/briefs" answer from this would-be Commander in the Sheets.


Most awkward moment: During the same quiz, when Oprah asked him for his favorite cereal, Gore thought she meant "serial" and said "Oprah," which is neither a serial nor a cereal (but "Oprah O's" does have a ring to it).

Most blatant suck-up: Gore congratulates Oprah on winning an Emmy the night before for producing the TV movie "Tuesdays with Morrie." He also claims to remember her from the days when both were cub reporters in Nashville. And he absolutely loves her red boots.

Gore on "Late Show" (Sept. 14) Dave shows Gore who's boss by dissing him in the monologue: "Ladies and gentlemen, tonight is a special Al Gore fundraiser. Al will be out here a little later to collect your thousand dollars." As befitting the Letterman demographics (male), Gore was in full, ironic "we all know this is all crap" mode, playing along with the trademark "Late Show" antics. He and running mate Lieberman filmed a mock campaign-trail clip spoofing Bush's open-mike "asshole" gaffe about New York Times reporter Adam Clymer. (Gore: "I gotta go on the Letterman show. That show is so lame." Lieberman: "Yeah, big time.") Gore read the list of "Top Ten Rejected Gore/Lieberman Campaign Slogans" ("No. 4: You don't have to worry about pork-barrel politics"), and flung the Top Ten card through the window at the end, just like Dave does.

Dave also brought up the Bush debate prep package that "mysteriously" landed on a Gore staffer's desk. "It looks like a dirty trick," said Letterman. "They were trying to set you guys up because they're in a little bit of a hole here with this 'asshole' thing." Gore refused to bite.


Best line: Gore added a campaign slogan of his own to the Top Ten list: "Vote for us. We'll work 24/6 for you!"

Most awkward moment: When Dave asked Gore about the kiss, Gore tried for a studly rejoinder: "To me, that was just a little peck." Al, don't go there. The second most awkward moment: Letterman's fixation on the melting polar icecap. As he went on about it, Gore listened with the sort of patient look politicians wear when they're buttonholed by a constituent complaining that the Post Office is stealing his mail.

Joe Lieberman on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien (Sept. 14) The Democratic vice-presidential candidate got in some talk-show face time before the big Gore/Lieberman benefit concert in New York that night. He should have gone to watch the sound check instead. Lieberman's "Late Night" gig was painful from start to finish. Clearly nervous and starstruck, O'Brien failed to protect Lieberman from himself, allowing the puckish kosher ham to put on a Catskills floor show.

Lieberman read off his own list of Gore/Lieberman campaign slogans -- "A matzo ball in every soup," "No bull, no pork." Are you sensing a theme here? He also ran through a sampling of the stand-up act that earned him the title of the "funniest person on Capitol Hill." "Sometimes when my wife is out, I go down to the family room, turn on the VCR and play the love scenes from 'Yentl' over and over." Ba-dum-bum! "Sometimes on Friday nights, I have not one but two glasses of Manischewitz wine." Enough with the Jewish jokes, already! Lieberman finished by yielding to O'Brien's not exactly forceful prompting for a song, picking up a hand mike and singing "My Way" -- all of it. It was like the bar mitzvah reception from hell.


Best line: O'Brien to Lieberman: "You look like you're having a good time. Cheney looks like he's been drafted."

Most awkward moment: It's hard to pick just one.

Blatant suck-up: Lieberman effusively congratulated O'Brien on the seventh anniversary of "Late Night." O'Brien: "Have you ever watched this show?"

Bush on "Oprah" (Sept. 19) One of the benefits of letting your opponent go first is that you get to one-up him. Oprah expressed disappointment that Gore didn't kiss her when he came onstage; Bush strode right out and planted a big one on her cheek. Oprah was as happy as a little girl.


Bush also played to Winfrey's demands for personal openness. He confessed that he stopped drinking because "alcohol was beginning to compete for my affections with my wife and my family." He got teary-eyed recounting the birth of his twin daughters after wife Laura's difficult pregnancy. We also learned, thanks to Oprah's quiz, that Bush's favorite sandwich is peanut butter and jelly on white bread and his favorite song is "Wake Up Little Susie," which he first credited to Buddy Holly, then, after a shaky moment, corrected himself. (It's by the Everly Brothers.) Oprah raised an interesting point when she opined that "people want a president who is like us ... but who is smarter than us." Bush sort of disagreed, in a veiled jab at Gore: "You can't inspire and unite by thinking you're smarter than everybody else." After all, Bush told Oprah earlier, "I'm a person who recognizes the fallacy of humans."

Best line: When Oprah interrupted his spiel about seeking forgiveness, telling him she was looking for "specifics," Bush answered, "I know you are, but I'm running for president."

Most awkward moment: A heckler started to shout out a question, was shushed by Oprah and then tried to ask the question again. Oprah immediately called for a commercial break, during which the heckler was presumably seized by an army of flying monkeys and carried away to a dank interrogation cell.

Joyce Millman

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

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Al Gore Conan O'brien George W. Bush Oprah Winfrey