I’m not a right-winger, but I blame it all on Bill Clinton!
Back in June 1992, when the Arkansas governor’s first serious presidential bid was still in doubt, he popped up on Arsenio Hall to toot “Heartbreak Hotel” on his saxophone. It was his campaign’s effort to “go right to the people,” and by all measures, it worked. To be fair, Clinton wasn’t the first candidate to make a guest appearance on the tube to connect with voters — John F. Kennedy visited Jack Paar in 1960 and Richard Nixon mangled a punchline on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In in 1968 — but once Clinton showed up on in his shades and belted out an Elvis tune, the power of television took over. Not only did he seem so much younger than his competition — George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot — but he seemed like a guy you’d want to be pals with.
Ever since Clinton’s sax solo, politicians have cast aside old-fashioned concerns that such stunts might seem “unpresidential” and fully embraced them as golden opportunities. Even old-school pols like Bob Dole and John McCain deigned to appear on Saturday Night Live when their campaigns needed a boost, and chats with Jay Leno, David Letterman, and Jon Stewart have become even more important than appearances on the serious Sunday morning political talk shows. This year, President Obama has sat down with Jon Stewart, David Letterman, Jay Leno, Brian Williams, the ladies from The View, Nickelodeon kids, and the hipsters at MTV. For Pete’s sake, President Obama slow-jammed the news on Jimmy Fallon in April.
Mitt Romney, on the other hand, has turned the other cheek, so to speak. Perhaps because many of the TV comedians have relished poking fun at him, Romney has resisted the temptation to give them the ratings boost that his presence would deliver. As a result, according to the New York Times, he is the most in-demand guest as the election winds down. Saturday Night Live‘s Lorne Michaels told the paper that he thought they had a deal in place to land the Republican nominee for a walk-on last month, but Romney’s camp pulled the plug at the last minute. With only one SNL episode remaining before Election Day, Michaels is holding out hope that things could fall into place this Saturday. But let’s not forget what Romney told his infamous crowd of wealthy donors: “I did not do that in part because you want to show that you’re fun and you’re a good person, but you also want to be presidential. And Saturday Night Live has the potential of looking slapstick and not presidential.”
So next Tuesday’s results could defy 20 years of presidential political wisdom. On one hand, Obama has appeared on every possible show. On the other, Romney hasn’t appeared on a late-night program since a visit to The Tonight Show in March. (Paul Ryan has been even more MIA.) If Romney wins without the help of such “exposure,” future candidates might also be tempted to eschew opportunities to discuss boxers versus briefs and other essential political issues. As an entertainment connoisseur and a political junkie, I think I’m okay with that regression.