As she pursues the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton has done her best to carve out an identity separate from that of her larger-than-life husband. But when she takes the stage Thursday night at the Ed Sullivan Theater for her seventh appearance on Late Night With David Letterman, Clinton, like virtually every media-savvy candidate these days, is simply following a trail blazed by Bill Clinton 15 years ago.
It was during the presidential campaign of 1992 that the young Arkansas governor turned a swanky, colorful Hollywood studio with velvet couches and a host dressed more like a night clubber than an emcee into a political platform. For the previous three decades, the televised image of candidates had largely been of dark-suited, serious men selling themselves as if they were on a job interview. But that June night Clinton blew his saxophone into campaign history on The Arsenio Hall Show, boosting his carefully calculated image as a fresh candidate who was better suited than incumbent George Bush to lead a new generation of voters in a post-Cold War world.
Ever since that moment, making stops on the talk-show circuit is as expected a part of campaigning as attending state fairs and rubber chicken fundraising dinners. For politicians who have all too few opportunities to show off a more relaxed and human side, these appearances with the same hosts who crack one-liners at their expense allow them to let their guard down, clown around and, most importantly, connect with some voters who otherwise aren't paying any attention to the campaign. "The more people get to know Hillary, the more they like her," explained Clinton campaign spokesman Isaac Baker, optimistically, on why she makes the talk show rounds.
Back in 2000 Clinton actually used a "Letterman"appearance to announce her candidacy for the U.S. Senate. "I knew that if I were going to run for the Senate, I had to come and sit in "this" chair, and talk to "the" big guy," she said on the air.
Many of the current cadre of Democratic and Republican candidates are familiar with talk show turf. Both Senators Mitt Romney and John McCain have made appearances on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. On Tuesday night, McCain even used Leno's show to take note of the troubles his campaign has been having. "We are doing so poorly I thought maybe I would announce on this show that I'm running for President of the United States," he told Leno.
Bob Lichter, a professor of communications at George Mason University and president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, traces candidate talk show guest appearances back to the 1988 campaign. At that time, George H.W. Bush's campaign manager Lee Atwater watched Johnny Carson's quips on The Tonight Show to see which candidate jokes got the biggest laughs. "It was 1988 and it was the first time anyone ever thought about political humor having any significance," Lichter explained. "What happened was the political writers started taking note of the comedians and this realm of entertainment became a part of the overall political discourse. Candidates didn't have a choice, either audiences heard comedians making fun of you or you try to join the party."
Lichter noted a Pew Center study that said most voters get their political information from late night talk shows and that candidates' are getting less time on conventional television news shows. In 1968, he said, the average length of a candidate's sound bite on TV newscasts was 42 seconds; now it is down to only eight. That means candidates are compelled to seek out more unorthodox venues to seek out the spotlight.
"Whether it translates into votes, we don't know," said Lichter. "What we do know is these shows have political impact and they transform the voters. It's counter-programming: journalists define candidates in their own terms, but when a candidate goes on with a comedian, that's his chance to make a definition for himself."
Maria Comella, a spokeswoman for former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who has appeared often on Letterman's show, Late Night With Conan O'Brien and other shows, says the talk-show circuit allows the candidate a chance to open up to an audience outside of the bounds of a news interview. "I think it speaks for itself when the mayor is allowed to show voters a more humorous side," Comella said. "It happens on the campaign trail, but it isn't necessarily seen by millions of people at one time... More than anything it allows voters to see a well-rounded candidate that they don't always see. They are used to seeing a candidate talking about issues, but this completes a picture."
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama already has a Letterman appearance under his belt, as well as one on Oprah. He did The Daily Show With Jon Stewart last week, where he offered a sample of his wit to soften serious talk. When Stewart, referring to his oft-cited lack of experience, asked if he'd consider running a smaller country, Obama quipped: "No, what I did think about though was invading a smaller country."
"It helps candidates like the Senator show their personal side," said Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki, who agreed that talk show appearances can show a more jovial side of candidates who are constantly touting serious issues in campaign speeches. "The fact is he's funny, he listens to music, he follows sports. He's committed to changing the way we do business in America, but at the same time he has a side the American public would enjoy seeing."