- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 10, 2000


Call it late-night bounce. The power of the punch line is a much-coveted commodity as politicians up their ante with comedic fare.

There will be a Hillary moment on Friday when New York Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton debuts on NBC's "Tonight" show, where she "will likely engage in a lively conversation with Jay Leno," the network notes.

But wait. Vice-presidential progeny Karenna Gore Schiff and Kristen Gore will appear Aug. 14, and their mother, Tipper, two days later.

We can't fault the ladies.

Late-night TV has become proving ground and springboard for political heavies intent on gilding both their images and the party line. The New York Times, in fact, has called midnight fare the "election's barometer."

One-liners that emerge on late-night television are convenient, too a boon to news organizations that need content for the ever-burgeoning news hole in a cluttered, 24-hour marketplace.

Yesterday, the Associated Press began a new "Campaign Comedians" feature a short, snappy recap of late-night political humor that runs through Nov. 7.

"We've gotten very specific about the political prism," noted AP spokesman Jack Stokes. "This is one reflection of it."

The National Journal's "Hotline" already offers a similar, comprehensive overview of who said what the night before.

It spells serious business, too.

A Pew Research poll found that one out of three persons gleans serious political information from late-night shows. The figure rose to 50 percent among viewers younger than 30.

Moments of chummy humor frame the candidate in an engaging light often missing from scripted events though such incidents still can be manipulated.

When Mrs. Clinton was on CBS' "Late Night with David Letterman" in January, she got a sneak peak at her questions and hired professional comedy writers to produce her own little "Top 10" list.

CBS denied any collusion. Viewership for the show, meanwhile, doubled that night.

In a whistle-stop tour through TV land, Arizona Sen. John McCain and Texas Gov. George W. Bush appeared simultaneously with Mr. Leno and Mr. Letterman, respectively, as they campaigned for the Republican presidential nomination.

It can get tricky, particularly without that precious spin control.

Mr. McCain sat side by side with a glamorous actress and an unfriendly female comedian; Mr. Bush was surrounded by turkey callers and Candice Bergen.

And of course, few can control what late-night hosts say about the candidates. Media handlers quake over jokes with damaging content.

According to a former campaign worker, President Clinton's advisers hoped every night during the 1992 campaign that late-night barbs would concentrate on Mr. Clinton's taste for junk food rather than his marijuana use or infidelities.

"Once they have a take on you, once they decided what to mock you for, it essentially becomes permanent, and there's almost no way of undoing it," Democratic adviser Mandy Grunwald said this year.

Savvy candidates realize it's all part of the mix of celebrityhood and media moments.

Bob Dole, for instance, suddenly emerged on late night as an endearing, clever man after he lost his presidential bid in 1996 then relaxed and enjoyed himself.

"He felt that he could indulge in a little celebrity banter," noted TV news analyst Matthew Kerbel, "never recognizing that celebrity banter is what running for president is all about."

Mr. Dole is now a commentator for Comedy Central.

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