The Oprah Primary

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George W. Bush on the set of 'Live With Regis'

George W. Bush just had his first good week since the convention, and there's only one explanation: Oprah. She can sell mediocre books, why not slumping candidates? In the dog days of his a__hole aside and the "subliminable" RATS ad, Bush swore he would switch to campaigning on issues. But that was a short-lived promise to silence critics worried about how quickly Gore had closed the charm gap. Last Wednesday Bush admitted he would be too busy this fall to reveal any details of his missile-defense system. He conceded earlier that he was having a hard time communicating the details of his tax cut. He has never dwelled for long in the arcana of health care.

On Oprah, Bush was on friendly, issue-free terrain, where he gained ground just by planting a big one, big time, on the queen of daytime talk. The week before, Gore too had done well on Oprah, but the kid who asked for extra-credit assignments was not made for the confession format. Gore goofed by merely shaking hands ("No kiss?" Oprah wondered aloud). Worse, he pulled the curtain back only on Tipper's depression, rather than serving up any dark night of his own soul. Bush, on the other hand, delivered the emotional arc Oprah's fans tune in for, speaking of God and his battle with alcohol. The money shot was a tear in his eye, better even than Clinton's lip biting, as he described Laura's difficult pregnancy. His eyes still glistened after the commercial break.

His staff members were so excited by his performance that they spun themselves into a whopper, telling reporters they had been swamped with favorable calls from viewers around the country. Problem was, the show hadn't aired around the country; it had just finished taping in Chicago.

Have we come to the point that appearing likable on Regis and Oprah is as important as doing well in the debates? Really, how much do we have to like the guy whose job is grappling with international crises? It's not as if we're going to be invited over for hoedowns on Saturday night. Even Clinton could squeeze in only 404 sleepovers a year.

In fairness, the talk shows do occasionally push candidates into that potentially revealing place that lies between their programmed selves and who they really are. We've seen that Gore is not as stiff as we thought, and Bush can hold his own when not scripted. But don't think these appearances are ad-libbed. Appearing on Regis (with Susan from Survivor and a guy slicing wood with his hand), Bush went through a wardrobe change so that he could walk onstage dressed exactly like...Regis. Thank God Kathie Lee retired, or he might have donned spandex.

Both candidates are trying to crack their late-night caricatures by matching wits with the creators of those caricatures. When Gore showed up on Letterman recently, he scored with his prepared material ("I gave you the Internet; I can take it away"), a gag the Modern Humorist, a website, claims Gore lifted. But the payoff for Gore came when David Letterman joked that the show was actually a fund raiser and that Gore would be out in the audience "to collect your thousand dollars." The Buddhist temple just hasn't had the same sting since.

But as Bush knows, you can get hurt by straining to keep up with a trained comedian. When Bush appeared by satellite last spring on Late Night, Letterman lobbed a seeming softball about his saying he was "a uniter, not a divider." Bush said, inexplicably, "That means when it comes time to sew up your chest cavity, we use stitches as opposed to opening it up." The audience booed. What could he possibly have been thinking? A few days earlier, Letterman had cried while recounting his heart surgery.

America's chat culture, with its false intimacy and scripted spontaneity, often gives the candidates just one more facile disguise. If the ability to emote on Oprah is the standard for the presidency, then 90% of the country is qualified. From Oprah you can learn that the best gift Bush has ever given was a kiss to his wife (don't parse that either), that he loves his kids, and that he can sometimes deploy his mother's acerbic wit. But if you're more worried about your Social Security check than congeniality, I suggest you flip over to C-SPAN.