- The Washington Times - Friday, June 2, 2000

George W. Bush has begun granting long interviews on cable news shows that Vice President Al Gore has avoided, facing tough questions in a media arena that is becoming increasingly important in national politics.

The Texas governor fielded questions for an hour Wednesday from Chris Matthews on "Hardball" on MSNBC. Earlier this spring, he subjected himself to an extended grilling by Bill O'Reilly of "The O'Reilly Factor" on Fox News Channel.

By mixing it up with such rough-and-tumble interviewers, Mr. Bush is solidifying his claim to the "Mr. Accessibility" title vacated by Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican. While the Texas governor gives press conferences several times each week, Mr. Gore has given only one in the last 103 days.

Experts are divided over the merits of the vice president's relative inaccessibility to the press. Some say Mr. Gore is playing it safe because he fears being eviscerated by hard-charging reporters.

But others point out that Mr. Gore can more than hold his own in hostile television environments, such as debates. And they argue that unlike Mr. Bush who needs to become better known to the public Mr. Gore is already a familiar politician of national stature.

"Last night, I think it's fair to say that the governor of Texas came across as a person as a guy for the first time to maybe a million people," Mr. Matthews told The Washington Times. "A lot of people had heard his name, they knew his family, they knew his history but they don't know him as a guy. And now they do."

Mr. Matthews, a Democrat who once worked for former House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, has been trying for months to land a similar interview with the vice president.

"I would expect, just being a political student, that he's calculated that there's only so much of him of his personality and he's rationing himself," the talk-show host said.

"So I assume he gives a big tough speech at the convention, a real tub-thumper; then he goes into the debates and goes completely on the attack; and then he'll do a couple niceties in the fall with you know, maybe Larry King or Diane Sawyer. That'll work against expectations and he thinks that will be enough to win."

Although Mr. Gore has appeared on CNN's "Larry King Live," Mr. O'Reilly considers that a less-robust forum than "The O'Reilly Factor." He said the vice president's reluctance to grant him an interview is the result of "a well-thought-out strategy."

"What has happened in political circles is that the spinmeisters, the political consultants who these guys hire, have been mandated to select venues whereby their clients-slash-candidates aren't going to be hurt," the Fox TV host told The Times. "In Bush's case, 'The Factor' delivers the largest Republican-slash-independent audience of any cable-news program. It's a demographic they feel is winnable.

"Now the Gore people have come to the conclusion that there aren't enough swing voters out there, they believe, to make it worthwhile for him to come in here and answer questions," Mr. O'Reilly added. "I would be stunned if he would come in."

L. Brent Bozell, chairman of the Media Research Center, said Mr. Gore would get credit for walking into the "lion's den" if he granted interviews to hosts such as Mr. Matthews and Mr. O'Reilly.

"Gore's pretty good on television," Mr. Bozell said. "But he's hiding because he thinks the Clinton fatigue baggage will be the consensus topic of discussion. Well, it's up to a good candidate to change the topic."

Cable-news shows, which are rapidly supplanting the old broadcast networks as the most in-depth providers of political coverage, are wielding greater clout in national politics because they are watched by people most likely to vote.

The broadcast networks ABC, CBS and NBC have already ceded their traditional role of providing wall-to-wall coverage of this summer's political conventions to the cable news stations CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC.

"Of course, Gore should be doing these shows, especially if theme number seven of his campaign this week's theme is to go positive and to tell a story," Mr. Bozell said. "It just goes to show just how utterly in disarray his campaign is.

"He's not learning well from the master, Bill Clinton," Mr. Bozell added. "Remember back in 1992, when Clinton was appearing on every program possible and doing things like playing the saxophone on the Arsenio Hall show and doing MTV, which no Republican would touch? That's because there was an audience there and Clinton knew it."

Some say even an adversarial interview could work to Mr. Gore's advantage. They point to a contentious 1988 exchange between then-Vice President Bush and Dan Rather of CBS.

When Mr. Rather peppered the president with questions on the Iran-Contra scandal, Mr. Bush turned the tables by denouncing the newsman for sandbagging him. The sparks that flew energized the president's Republican base.

A Gore spokesman emphasized that while the vice president himself is not appearing on many cable news shows, the campaign has "people speaking on our behalf every day."

Furthermore, although Mr. Gore disdains press conferences, he regularly grants one-on-one interviews with local TV reporters around the country and sometimes appears on the broadcast networks' morning shows, such as "Today."

But critics say these interviews are shorter and more superficial than what Mr. Gore would face on cable. They argue that the vice president's preference for one-on-one interviews over formal press conferences in which many reporters get a crack at Mr. Gore is a defensive strategy that gives the candidate better control over the exchange.

Earlier this year, Mr. Gore went 62 days without a press conference. After being repeatedly chided by Republicans, the vice president held one on Good Friday April 21 but has not held one since.

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