MotherJones JA93: I feel your pain

How to host the presidency in 12 steps.

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The first time I realized that Phil Donahue was going to be president was the day before the New York primary, in April l992, when Bill Clinton debated Jerry Brown on “Donahue.” Donahue himself hardly spoke a word that day. He said, “Ladies and gentlemen, Governor Brown and Governor Clinton,” at the start of the show, and “Gentlemen, thank you both,” at the end. In between, Bill Clinton was Phil Donahue.

It wasn’t just that the two of them, with their thatches of prematurely gray hair and round-faced, choirboy good looks, resembled one another, or even that they acted similarly, using a self- deprecating affability to mask a more prickly core. Rather it was the ease with which Clinton played host: asking all the questions, listening politely to Brown’s answers before giving his own, switching topics smoothly, and even keeping a sharp eye on the clock. Toward the end he said, “We only have about three minutes left. Let’s talk about one other thing…” A short time later he said, “Let me just make one point; we’ve just got a minute to go,” and then proceeded to run out the clock.

Clinton even struck a number of the therapeutic chords of the afternoon talk show in exactly the right confessional tone. “My mother was a widow when I was born. My father died in a car accident. I was raised till I was four by my grandparents,” he said by way of biographical introduction. If he had only added that his stepfather was an alcoholic, his brother a drug addict, and he himself an adulterer, the list would have made a pretty typical lineup on any talk show in the nation.

Above all, Clinton reached out to the rest of us in what I’ve come to think of, even on “Donahue,” as Oprahland, a place populated by victims of one darn thing or another. “People are hurting all over this country,” he said, as he would over and over during the campaign. “You can see the pain in their faces, the hurt in their voices.” You could plainly see the pain in his face (especially since he bit his lower lip in an empathetic gesture before making the pronouncement) and hear the hurt in his overworked voice. Clinton was successfully presenting his own brand of self-help politics on television’s longest-running self-help show, merging the public realm with the private, citizenship with co-dependency. When the hour was over and Clinton leaned across the table to shake Brown’s hand, no one would have been surprised if he had thanked his opponent for being on the show and expressed the hope that he come back real soon.

Of course, Clinton won the debate (and the primary) hands down. The host always wins. I think I know when Clinton figured that out. A week before the debate with Jerry Brown, he had been on “Donahue” by himself, and Donahue had mauled him relentlessly with all the “character” charges that had come up during the campaign: the I- smoked-it-but-didn’t-inhale defense, the draft evasion, the conflict- of-interest investments, and especially the reputed affairs with Gennifer Flowers and others. Clinton defended himself as best he could with his by-then standard evasions and half-truths–and then he grew visibly angry and simply refused to answer any more questions. “I’m not going to discuss the details any further,” he said, shaking his finger at a clearly surprised Donahue. “We’re gonna sit here a long time in silence, Phil. I don’t believe any decent human being should have to put up with the kind of questioning you’re putting me through.”

When Donahue refused to relent, Clinton took the offensive, asking him, as an important public figure “trying to affect the feelings of the American people,” if he’d like to answer some questions about his intimate life. By this time the audience, clearly in Clinton’s corner, shouted for Donahue to back off, which he reluctantly did. For the remaining fifteen minutes “The Phil Donahue Show” became “The Bill Clinton Show.”

None of this is especially surprising. The definition of a Great Communicator changes over time, and Bill Clinton became president in our interview-mad, talk-show-crazy age, when there was a perceptible shift in the reigning communications medium, and his command of that change helped him get elected and is influencing the way he governs. Ronald Reagan was a master at reading from a TelePrompTer in front of a fixed camera, much as he had done three decades earlier when he hosted “General Electric Theater,” and in the waning years of a three-network system dominated by the evening news, that was more than enough to win him his Great Communicator stripes.

The last presidential election was the first that operated fully under television’s new reality, with cable stations and syndicated shows on dozens of channels as important as the networks, and the evening news yielding to all manner of talk shows as key political forums. Ross Perot announced his candidacy on “Larry King Live.” Clinton saved his on “60 Minutes” and broadened its appeal with appearances on MTV and “The Arsenio Hall Show.” George Bush lost the election in part because he barricaded himself in the White House for too long with the old, increasingly irrelevant White House press corps.

While previous presidents were just guests on television (some, like Reagan, guest stars), Clinton is the first president-as-host, the First Host.

Clinton is a natural-born talk-show star. In many ways he’s an old- fashioned pol who never encountered a back he didn’t want to slap, but his ease before the cameras allows him to beam these one-to-one encounters across the country. He’s empathetic, full of caring gestures, and flexible (or cynical) enough in his beliefs to be able to take all sides, as a good talk-show host must. Even his youth serves him especially well at a time when the patriarchal figures of TV news have been overthrown by their professional progeny.

All of Clinton’s talk-show assets encountered the fierce demands of the medium in a make-or-break way after the Gennifer Flowers tapes surfaced, and he and Hillary were forced to appear on that abbreviated post-Super Bowl edition of “60 Minutes.” It was a bravura performance. He denied having an affair with Flowers and stonewalled questions about other affairs, but he was still properly contrite and confessional. (“I have acknowledged wrongdoing. I have acknowledged causing pain in my marriage. I have said things to you tonight that no American politician ever has.”) His voice quavered with emotion when the interviewer, Steve Kroft, congratulated the Clintons for having “reached some sort of an understanding and an arrangement.” (“Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Wait a minute. You’re looking at two people who love each other. This is not an arrangement or an understanding.”) He even tried to become the host at one point (“Let’s take it from your point of view…”) and make the media’s “character” and not his own the subject under discussion. He held Hillary’s hand at times; she rubbed his back once or twice and looked at him attentively (but never with Nancy Reagan’s patented stare of frozen adoration). Whether he was telling the truth in denying Gennifer Flowers’s allegations became, in the context of a TV interview (that is, of no context), completely irrelevant.

Clinton’s other bravura performance, of course, was the presidential debate in Richmond before an invited audience of two hundred or so representative voters, a format suggested by the Democrats that would prove something of a setup. After several of the questions had an Oprahland, touchy-feely tone, Bush looked visibly uncomfortable and began glancing at his watch as if he were late for a golf date. When a woman asked how the state of the economy had personally affected each of the candidates’ lives, Bush, who had only recently ventured out in the world long enough to discover computerized supermarket checkout machines, stumbled through an answer. For Clinton the question was a softball as big as all outdoors, the kind he had been practicing answering for months as host-in-training. He left the podium to approach the woman directly, asking: “Tell me how it’s affected you again? You know people who’ve lost their jobs and lost their homes?” Yes, she nodded. Then he began to tell her, the concern in his voice and manner approaching Mother-Teresa-in-the-hospice intensity, how he had been traveling for months meeting “with people like you all over America, people that have lost their jobs, lost their livelihood, lost their health insurance.” It was a defining moment in the campaign, one that helped him win the debate and perhaps even the presidency.

As First Host, Clinton will clearly have a lot of competition for talk-show ratings. Suddenly it seems as though everyone famous for more than fifteen minutes has his or her own talk show. It’s as if, in the quantum universe of celebritydom, the laws of space on Johnny’s couch have been reversed, with guests moving closer to the host as other guests come on until they take over for him. Seamlessly, the former interviewers and the formerly interviewed join Phil and Oprah and Larry and David and Jay and Geraldo and Joan and Sally Jessy and Maury and the hundreds of others in every local TV market who make it possible for us to celebrate celebrities–or watch them celebrate themselves–around the clock and from sea to shining sea. To paraphrase our national bard, I hear America talking (and talking and talking).

Clearly, the talk show fills some crucial need in our national life, which I think has to do with a felt absence of place and power. Talk shows provide some communal sense in an increasingly anomic world. The studio audience–and by extension the television audience–becomes a kind of therapeutic, personal-problem-solving support group that helps us feel better about ourselves and resolve to live better, one hour at a time. Talk shows allow us to feel connected to this community of self-improving, self-motivated doers “empowering” themselves–without affecting in any way the actual circumstances of our lives.

For even more than lack of place it is the lack of power in our lives that has helped turn television into a twenty-four-hour-a-day talk- show marathon. In a troubled economic time, when people distrust government and feel helpless to affect their fate, talking back may be the only form of power left to them. (This is particularly true with the call-in segments of talk shows, where it becomes apparent that the audience is swollen with the ranks of the un- and underemployed.) Those of us who can’t act ourselves can watch others seeming to act– voyeurs watching exhibitionists in a pantomime of power.

But the talk show never leads to genuine action, in part because it isn’t really about talk at all. The two components of its name bear vastly unequal weight; in terms of what really matters the genre is all show and very little talk, or rather the talk is just the excuse for the show. Words are at best disposable items on television, and the best talk-show hosts know this instinctively. Johnny Carson used to flip through his stack of prepared jokes contemptuously discarding those he thought wouldn’t work. Television always seeks out the spontaneous and impromptu over prepared material, and Carson knew that he could often get a bigger laugh with ad-libbed comments about the rejected jokes than he could with the jokes themselves, just as he could generally get a compensatory laugh with a mugging reaction to a joke that bombed.

As a national figure Bill Clinton was actually born–or at least born again–on a talk show. A few days after the 1988 Democratic convention, at which his interminably long-winded nominating speech received its biggest applause when he said, “In conclusion,” he got himself booked on “The Tonight Show.” By making a pilgrimage to our national shrine of visibility and laughing at himself (“[Dukakis] called me a few days ago and he said…would I please nominate George Bush in New Orleans”), Clinton was able to do proper penance for that most mortal of all television sins–wordiness. He also said something that would prove to be prescient when Carson asked him about his own ambitions for higher office: “Depends on how I do on the show tonight.”

Guests go on talk shows for visibility, to be seen. Their body language is much more important than their spoken language. Sometimes the talk is interesting or informative, sometimes it’s boring or irrelevant. It doesn’t matter. Genuine expertise about a subject is a hindrance, almost an embarrassment calling for apology. When Clinton’s media advisors decided to broaden the candidate’s demographics with an appearance on “Arsenio,” Clinton went off by himself to practice his saxophone renditions of “Heartbreak Hotel” and “God Bless the Child” and to perfect his Blues Brothers look. Everyone knew that it would have been inappropriate and gauche (that is, rude to the host) for even the soon-to-be Democratic presidential candidate to talk about something that truly mattered to our national life–health-care reform, say, or the national debt.

Even if a guest tries to say something meaningful on a talk show, it is rendered irrelevant by its lack of context. Talk shows try hard for the right “mix” of guests, meaning usually that they have no connection to one another except for membership, however fleeting, in the world of celebrities. A few months ago a promo on “The Charlie Rose Show” read, “Coming Tomorrow: Henry Kissinger, Henry Winkler.” Schooled in the logic of television, we say to ourselves, Ah, yes, of course, the two Henrys.

If words are at best disposable objects on talk shows, at worst they become objects of destruction. David Letterman, the reigning deconstructive genius of the genre, takes the throwaway nature of words to a literal extreme by tossing them out the “window” behind him. Letterman’s cue cards become lethal projectiles that shatter, along with the glass, any illusion that host and guests are simply sitting at home in a Manhattan apartment with an expensive view exchanging intimacies. Programs such as “The McLaughlin Group,” where the participants throw words at one another like pies in a clown show, work well on television because they’re kinetic, and the words are full of sound and fury, however little they signify. Words are often used as weapons to elicit visual reactions from interviewees, with some TV interviewers actually specializing in quite specific reactions. A confrontational interviewer like Mike Wallace uses words to evoke angry reactions, while Barbara Walters’s piously empathetic approach is designed to elicit the telltale tear when she hits pay dirt. These reactions are a kind of televisual pornography, the functional equivalent of the cum shot in hardcore films: visual proof of a private, internal process.

It isn’t important to tell the truth or be candid on television, only to appear to be truthful and candid, to give off the right visual signals–in other words, to be credible. Giving off no visual signals can be as disastrous as giving off the wrong ones. In 1988 Michael Dukakis lost a crucial presidential debate by remaining outwardly impassive to CNN anchor Bernard Shaw’s outrageous question about whether the candidate thought that his views on the death penalty would change if his wife were raped and murdered. (“No, I don’t, Bernard,” Dukakis began, as if he were answering a question about the GNP.) It was a mistake that avid learner Bill Clinton would not repeat. (“We’re gonna sit here a long time in silence, Phil.”) Curiously, words may be irrelevant on television except as background noise for pictures, but the background noise is essential. Without it everything grinds to a soundless halt. If words are the host’s weapons, the refusal to speak is the guest’s best defense.

For these reasons the talk show is the most democratic of media forms. It is the great equalizer, obliterating all distinctions–between truth and falsity, between image and argument, between one guest and another, and, paradoxically, given its obsession with celebrities, between anyone who appears on it and the rest of us. In the most obvious way, television reduces celebrities’ “stature” quite literally by being so physically reductive, showing everyone, national heroes and petty scoundrels alike, only inches high. Ronald Reagan’s movie- star association with a larger screen helped him maintain his stature on the smaller one, just as his regular-guy attitude and obvious lack of expertise played well on television.

The medium’s hostility to expertise brings everyone down to the same lowest-common-denominator level. Its reduction of argument to image, and image, often held in extreme close-up, to the most basic physiognomic signals (tics, winces, pouts, frowns, tears, sweat, blushes, raised eyebrows, and tightened lips) amplifies flaws and sends out the message: we are all the same under the skin (because we are all the same on top of the skin). In a democracy the biggest sin is specialness; redemption comes with seeming like everyone else, appearing humble without being humiliated. Talk shows are a kind of interactive, therapeutic democracy (much like Clinton intends his presidency to be), and the celebrities who appear on them are forced to drop their aura of specialness and reveal their most intimate personal problems.

After he won the election, Clinton’s media strategy quickly became apparent. As First Host he would bypass the national press as much as possible by holding televised “town meetings” around the country and interviews with local media about specific issues of concern to them. It would be the same kind of “narrowcasting” that he began during the campaign. It was, in fact, a kind of permanent campaign.

It wasn’t until two months after the inauguration that he held his first White House press conference, and by then he had “hosted” a number of town meetings and a two-day economic conference, as well as given dozens of interviews to local media around the country. A week earlier, at the Radio and Television Correspondents dinner in Washington, Clinton had been amazingly forthright with the national press. “You know why I can stiff you on the press conferences?” he told them. “Because Larry King liberated me by giving me to the American people directly.” It sounded like a bumper sticker for Air Force One, as the President caromed around the country hosting “The Bill Clinton Show”–LARRY KING LIBERATED ME!

The strategy has many advantages for Clinton. It allows him to get his message out directly to the American public–unfiltered, unedited, unquestioned by the national press. It permits him to tailor this message to his audience much more precisely than do thirty-second sound bites on the evening news and to get immediate feedback. And it takes full advantage of Clinton’s genius at one-to-one rapport, now magnified many-millionfold by the latest communications technology.

But the strategy also has some worrisome actual and potential liabilities for the president and for the rest of us. Talk shows are machines for using up and spitting out celebrities, and it won’t take too many presidential sax riffs before Clinton becomes just another third-rate lounge act. Nor will it take too many stalled presidential programs before hosting the office seems like a very tired ploy.

If the ratings of “The Bill Clinton Show” fall precipitously–if a rival political figure like Ross Perot or Bob Dole, or even a rival talk-show host like Rush Limbaugh, becomes Oprah to Bill’s Phil–can some kind of populist pandering be far behind, especially by a president who likes to win and likes to be liked in about equal measure? What is the political equivalent of “Rapists Meet Their Victims” or “Daughters of Transsexual Fathers”? At the very least, fake health-care reform, phony budget cuts, and other feel-good therapies for our talk-show times.

Then, too, like all populist forums, talk shows, especially presidential ones, are easy prey to all manner of demagoguery. For contrary to the White House billing, studio audiences are not town meetings–they lack the shared values and commonality of interests of a genuine community. Nor do they provide adequate substitutes for press conferences–they lack the political savvy and probing instincts of good reporters. A studio audience is closer to a mob at rest than to a genuine community, and politics by applause meter becomes, at best, a kind of game show (let the president know which of his three options you prefer by making noise). At worst, of course, politics by applause meter is the road to Nuremberg.

The fundamental problem with the talk-show host as president is that it’s like jogging through water: the medium is all wrong for the purpose. With its substitution of talk for action, and a visceral show for meaningful talk, the genre is profoundly antipolitical. It is meant to provide a surrogate for action, not to lead to action. While Clinton looked distinctly uncomfortable at his initial press conference, where an evasive answer occasionally elicited an impudent follow-up, he performed brilliantly as host of the economic forum, as he would later at the day-long timber summit in Portland. At both events his affable manner, interested questions, and appreciative comments made the participants feel good about themselves just for being there, seemed to meld a temporary consensus from disparate viewpoints, and held out the hope of immediate action. If it turns out that the only “action” that results from these events is the studio audience’s–and by extension our own–momentary sense of cohesion and improved well-being, the line between the presidency and any other national talk show will become painfully thin.

But Bill Clinton is nothing if not a quick study and an adaptive politician, and already there are signs that he recognizes some of his problems. He seems to be reaching for an accommodation with the national media–which is still a powerful if no longer cutting-edge force–by holding more White House news conferences, and when he does he is more comfortable with their give and take. And he is not likely to ban Bob Dole and other opposition leaders from guest appearances on the Oval Office talk show in quite the same way as he did with health-care reform, if only because of their proven ability to exact revenge by blocking his legislative programs.

But none of this will matter much in the end if Clinton, with his support-group-facilitator talents, his confessional predilections and therapeutic nostrums, tries to make us feel good without actually doing better. A troubling pattern is beginning to emerge in which the First Host, bereft of beliefs or simply too eager to please all sides, backs away from difficult or unpleasant issues, and then attempts to regain the initiative with an upbeat attitude and make-nice signals. (A small but telling example occurred recently when Clinton’s response to Leon Panetta’s candidly gloomy outlook for the administration’s economic program was to say that the budget director “had a bad day yesterday because he got his spirits down. I want to buck him up.”) A strategy that substitutes pleasing gestures for effective actions may work for a short time, but inevitably harsh reality will make the president’s empathetic televised image ring pathetically false, at which point the ratings of “The Bill Clinton Show” will plummet and the electorate will seize the first opportunity to send it straight back to local access in Little Rock.

But just like Johnny, Bill will be right back, another roving ghost in our collective dream machine. Sometime in early l997 a national talk show will inevitably have a promo that reads something like, “Coming Tomorrow: Bill Clinton, Bill Murray.” Ah, yes, we’ll say to ourselves, long inured to the erasure of any distinction between information and entertainment, between image and argument, between public and private realms–of course, the two Bills.

Richard M. Levine, a former media columnist for Esquire, often writes about both politics and television.


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