When Dan Quayle assailed Murphy Brown last year, it marked perhaps the nadir of recent American political discourse. It offered little prospect of being surpassed either in oddity or stupidity. Bill Clinton's famous saxophone performance on the Arsenio Hall show plumbed similar depths, but perhaps it could be excused by the exigencies of the presidential campaign.
Yet Bob Dole's appearance on the Tonight Show last Thursday, though certainly less absurd than either Quayle's or Clinton's, clinches a disturbing trend. It demonstrates the complete erosion of the barrier between entertainment and politics. Dole has no ongoing campaign to blame; on the eve of a potentially bruising political fight he resorted not to the newspapers, nor even to Nightline, but to Ted Koppel's fluffy ratings competitor.
Resorting to entertainment is a tactic that has become endemic this year. More and more, marginal news shows like the Today Show and Good Morning America have become platforms of choice for candidates and established politicians.
This trend is a dangerous and undignified manifestation of the law of least resistance that seems to rule Washington.
Entertainment programs, as the name implies, try to entertain without necessarily challenging. For a politician, the Tonight Show offers the prospect of a free ride: face exposure, name recognition, and no tough questions. It is relatively obvious that faced with the choice between getting thrashed by Ted Koppel or "hosted" by Jay Leno, a politician will choose the latter option. It is certainly a proposition that the producers of such light entertainment understand. They bear part of the responsibility for the political complacency that characterizes the age of infotainment, providing a deleterious short cut for lazy leaders.
Jay Leno is simply ill-equipped to conduct an informative interview of Dole or anyone else of such political stature (and some might add that he's incapable of even making the interview funny). Not that it mattered last week. Dole showed no intention of truly addressing substantive political issues.
Getting booked on the Tonight Show is all about personality, a 15 minute long "mugging" session. A TV chat with the affable Leno has as its paramount goal making the politician look like the sort of person to whom "regular folks" could easily relate.
There are those who maintain that someone's personal side--sense of humor, mannerisms, and way of relating to the "down home" crowd--tell quite a bit about a politician that can't be learned from sterile debate. But while populist image-making has long been a staple of the American political diet, it has never truly been valuable.
Public policy is not about being amiable; ornery people can be effective politicians. Feigning amiability is just too easy, and believing in the superficial features that a Tonight Show appearance highlights is far too seductive to be safe. Should we trust a politician who does not seem to be proposing the best course because we feel a some vague connection of personality?
Of course, intangibles like charm have long influenced political choice. But when Bob Dole or Bill Clinton heads for the late night talk show circuit, there is a difference. Charm is not checked by hard questioning; trust and credibility do not settle into an equilibrium. Personality is all that comes through. The audience witnesses the complete divorce of the person and the politics, the former inflated at the expense of the latter. Politicians should not so beguile the voters that their policy views become secondary Ideally, politicians should be ciphers for certain ideologies, the more personally transparent, the better.
When Bob Dole jokes with Jay Leno about his disputes with the president, this sends a disturbing message about the nature of Washington. Legitimate political debate is relegated to the realm of humor. Dole can, with an odd sort of detachment, declare that all the fierce debate of Capitol Hill is really just a show, and that after hours he is really a friend of his political enemies. If it is a show, why should the American people take it seriously once the actors reveal it as an illusion? Will the voting public simply forget about the issues underlying political debate and be content to be entertained?
If the Tonight Show and programs of its genre become respectable forums for politicians, it will introduce even more selective pressure in favor of candidates with perniciously worthless traits. Modern candidates must already be photogenic, and in most cases, rich. Now such candidates must be able to trade one-liners with Jay Leno.
They must not merely have a "sense of humor" about the jibes of a late night talk show host, they must care so little about their principles that they will check them at the Tonight Show door.
Don't stand up for yourself, just laugh along, Ms. Senator or Mr. Congressperson. It's nothing serious, just our country's future.
Jay Leno makes his living in part by harping on the foibles and pecadilloes of the country's leaders. He may even serve a useful function, reigning in the hubris of power with the power of humor. But when those same leaders are complicit, they make sure that politics are about these embarrassing insults, slips, miscalculations, and chicaneries.
In judging politicians we should consider one other intangible as well: dignity. It is far undervalued these days but it is ultimately more important than charm. For a while it might be funny to see the President blow his horn on Arsenio, for the Senate Minority Leader to trade gags with Jay Leno. We might even come to enjoy seeing Al Gore doing a "stupid human trick" on Late Night with David Letterman.
But a government of glib, self-effacing talk-show guests will never have any dignity. And such a government cannot expect its citizens to take it seriously, to heed its calls, or to have any faith in it.