The 1992 campaign: TV's new hit -- Politics are taking center stage on television this summer

There’s a theory of corporate management that goes like this: Grapevines flourish when traditional channels of communication become clogged — when the boss is inaccessible or when workers, dismayed by what they perceive to be deceptive rhetoric (”Read my lips!”), are starved for information they can believe. The theory continues that the best way to learn what’s really what is to bypass the corporate communications types who guard the boss’ door and ask the boss what’s what directly; the next best way is to get a buddy to do the asking while you listen in on the answer.

You see where this is going. Thanks to the unprecedented reach and range of TV (our electronic grapevine), a nation of buddies frustrated with the state of the union, turned off by traditional presidential politics, and dissatisfied with traditional coverage of the same, are making crucial political decisions this election year by directly talking to, listening to, and watching the candidates on cable shows, syndicated shows, talk shows, morning shows — a whole new platform of discourse. The candidates, looking for fresh ways to communicate with skeptical voters (and, no small incentive, to dodge the kinds of tenacious questions Dan Rather & Co. ask), are largely bypassing the corporate communications guys — in this case, network anchors Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, the whole early-evening network universe — and taking their stories directly to Phil and Arsenio and Larry and Katie. One statistic of the times: The combined rating for network evening news shows is 56 percent of viewers, the lowest in more than 30 years.

The results have profoundly changed the shape of our politics and our political coverage. Morning TV, talk TV, and late-night TV are our new rally sites. And the candidates, it seems, are everywhere, every day, without once packing an overnight bag or making a local stump speech. As Clinton adviser and University of California at San Diego political science professor Samuel Popkin puts it, ”(The new TV campaigning) is like the New Hampshire primary, where the candidates can afford to spend six months having coffee with (voters). This is like having coffee with the candidates.”

So far this year, Democrat Bill Clinton has taken his story to Phil Donahue and Arsenio Hall and a bunch of kids at MTV and all three network a.m. shows. Almost-candidate Ross Perot declared his almost-candidacy on CNN’s Larry King Live and talks grandly about his dream of an ”electronic town hall,” in which, as President, he would bring issues directly to the electorate via interactive TV. Even President Bush, campaigning for a second term, has talked to CNN, Barbara Walters on 20/20, and CBS This Morning. The real, postconvention race hasn’t even started, but already media history has been made. Wielding remote controls and asking smart questions about important issues, they — we — have changed the company rules as if we owned the company. Which, of course, we do.

Everybody’s Talking
It’s the best TV show of the summer, a combination of drama, comedy, call-in game show, and American Gladiators that jumps from network to network, series to series, and time slot to time slot. The stars are George Bush, Dan Quayle, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot, and the guest stars range from Arsenio Hall and Barbara Walters to everyday 1-800 callers lucky enough to win the Dial-a-Candidate sweepstakes. But who’s up and who’s down? Final grades for the candidates’ TV appearances won’t be issued until Tuesday, Nov. 3, but here are the midterms. And yes, Mr. Vice President — spelling counts.

Jan 26
Clinton on 60 Minutes, CBS
With charges of infidelities in full Flower and threatening to choke his campaign, Clinton chooses the primest of prime times — following Super Bowl XXVI — as the place to ”put the issue to rest.” He then drops the bouquet with equivocations and fancy footwork, leading to a new image problem: the Slick Willie Thing. Good marks for Hillary Clinton’s first big appearance — except for her anti-stand-by-your-man slur. C

Feb. 20
Perot on Larry King Live, CNN
America’s fascination with Perot begins when he challenges viewers to get him on the ballot. He praises business, families, and we, the people (”the owners of this country”), and condemns ”special interests,” Saddam Hussein, and bad American cars. On top of that, he offers Texas homilies, as well as his first sound bite (on the deficit: ”Watch my lips — we owe four trillion bucks!”). He also says that as President, he’d conduct TV town meetings — but mind you, he isn’t running, which is why this just seems like an hour-long campaign ad, and a pretty great one. A

April 1
Clinton on Donahue
Our guest today: a penitent husband now running for office! Lord knows what kind of reception Bill expected from Phil (it’s all first names to daytime viewers), but he gets eye-rolling and exasperation over his feints and dodges. The audience, bless them, groans as Phil pushes for more personal revelations. A presidential performance by Clinton? Nosir. A uniquely American television moment? Heck, alas, yes. D+

April 16
Perot on Larry King Live, CNN
Perot returns as an authentic phenomenon. Metaphor of the night: ”The government is in gridlock.” He criticizes sound bites, then promises that Congress and a Perot White House ”will be dancing like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.” After accusing GOP ”country-club boys” of a dirty-tricks campaign, he wins hearts by saying he’d refuse federal matching funds. He loses points, however, for not even knowing what the Rio environmental conference is. B+

May 3
Perot on Meet the Press, NBC
Perot’s debut before a panel of real live reporters is a near-disaster. He waffles on specifics, offers to ”sound bite” his feelings about the L.A. riots, and reduces everything to an anecdote. (This is an outsider?) He gets mad when panelists don’t buy his loopy gun-control ”policy” (”Get the guns out of the hands of violent people”) and testy when asked tough questions on health care. By the end, he comes off as ill-informed — and crabbier than Yosemite Sam. D+

May 29
Perot on 20/20, ABC
The bumptious billionaire and his wife, Margot, get buffed, polished, and smooched — the full Barbara Walters treatment. Rocky-like introductory music sounds great; Perot doesn’t. His defense of a restricted club (”They didn’t exclude Jews and blacks — they just didn’t have any!”) suggests a high he-just-doesn’t-get-it factor, and his comment about excluding gays from the military and the Cabinet buys him some bad press. Later, he leaves Margot and Barbara to chat ”girl-to-girl.” (Somebody get this man a subscription to Ms.!) Still, heavy ”man of the people” footage and Mrs. P.’s warm TV debut humanize him for millions. B-

June 2
Clinton on The Arsenio Hall Show
Proof that sax sells and that young voters are the Democrats’ best hope. Clinton wears bebop shades and wails stiffly through ”Heartbreak Hotel” and ”God Bless the Child.” He later reinforces his straightforward stands on gay rights and abortion. And after being mocked on the smoked-pot-but-didn’t-inhale issue, he gets in his own joke about inhaling (to play the sax, get it?). He even looks like he’s having fun. B+

June 4
Bush’s live press conference, CNN
”To…get more attention, Mr. Bush has called a news conference,” announces CNN’s Bernard Shaw. The only problem: CBS, NBC, and ABC, sensing his motivation is more political than presidential, refuse to air it, confirming that this year, TV is to be courted by the candidates, not summoned by them. Dissed but unruffled, Bush goes on, but his appearance is less than triumphant — no matter how often he says ”balanced-budget amendment,” the only name on reporters’ lips is Perot. C-

June 9
Clinton on Today, NBC
Morning TV’s first live viewer call-in of the campaign, and Clinton’s most important grown-up appearance to date, as sensible people ask serious questions and the relaxed candidate gives well-worded, intelligent answers. Viewers rejoice: a man who can speak complete sentences! Executives at nightly news shows huddle: You mean viewers don’t need Tom Brokaw as Designated Guide? And campaigns are forever profoundly changed. A

June 10
Bush, not on The Arsenio Hall Show
When the White House announces that the Prez will not do Arsenio, Hall fires back: ”Well, excuse me, George Herbert irregular-heart-beating, read-my-lying-lipping, slipping-in-the-polls, do-nothing, deficit-raising, make-less- money-than-Millie-the-White-House-dog-last-year, Quayle-loving, sushi-puking Walker Bush. I don’t remember inviting your ass to my show. As a matter of fact, my ratings are higher than yours.” For Hall: A For Bush: D

June 11
Perot on Today, NBC
With provocative, good-humored responses to just-plain callers, Perot wins monster ratings. The first call is an ambush (”Have you ever had the desire to mind-meld with Howard Stern’s penis?”), but Katie Couric’s quick save keeps Perot calm. ”There’s nothing more fun than talking to real people,” he says, but that doesn’t include Couric; he greets her sharp, focused questions with snappish hostility. Perot again reviles sound bites, but offers a great one when he challenges Clinton and Bush to a debate: ”Let’s get it on!” B

June 12
Clinton buys time on NBC
Game show? Press conference? Info-mercial? Home Shopping Network? Stop, you’re all right. With an 800 number (”for a copy of the Clinton Plan, or if you want to help”) and bad Let’s Make a Deal theme music, Clinton tries to be all TV to all people: In a half-hour of prime time, he gives predictable answers to predictable questions in a room that looks, predictably, as if it’s usually used by volunteers for a public-TV fund-raiser. D+

June 15
Clinton on CBS This Morning
The producers probably figured: How do we distinguish this call-in from the Today show’s? We know! Let’s get questions from a studio audience, as well as from a few Clumps of Americans Around the Country. This results in what image consultants call the mishmash effect. But Clinton is now smooth as a presidential silk tie at this thing. The news that lifts the show out of the ho-hum: the Sister Souljah flap and Clinton’s calm explication of his position. B

June 15
Bush on CNN International Hour
How do you like your President — foreign or domestic? Bush is the man of steel talking about the Rio earth summit and the post-Cold War former Soviet Union, but Perot proves to be his Kryptonite. Asked about him, Bush is weak: ”Please let me stay out of this till after the convention. We started off talking about big things. Don’t press me.” C-

June 15
Quayle on Charlie Rose, PBS
For once, Quayle doesn’t sound like a used-car salesman trying to sell us val-yews. And he seems downright intelligent (or at least coherent) discussing Perot: ”He is not to be dismissed (but) the White House is not for sale.” But when Rose asks just who the cultural elite are, Quayle obfuscates: ”They know who they are. We know who we are.” Elaborating slightly, he adds, ”The cultural elite looks down on America.” Or maybe just on Quayle. C+

June 16
Clinton in Facing the Future With Bill Clinton, MTV
Who would have thought Clinton would do his best work answering questions from a young L.A. audience, on a show aimed at viewers more likely to know Marky Mark than Irving R. Levine? He seems refreshed by the energy around him, respectful and respect-worthy, at home with young America and interested in their thoughts. In turn, he comes off looking young and energetic himself — electable, even. A+

June 24
Perot on Today, NBC
Suddenly on the defensive and not enjoying it, Perot rebuts charges that he dug for dirt on Bush’s children and keeps his cool, though he sounds cranky and even a little Perot-noid when blaming Republican ”dirty tricks.” When Perot condemns sound bites again, Bryant Gumbel explains that saying, ”I don’t want to speak in sound bites” is, in fact, a sound bite. Busted! C+

June 24
Perot on Larry King Live, CNN
On another Larry King lovefest, Perot still seems impatient and dismissive. He loses the night when Republican National Committee chairman Rich Bond challenges him to prove his ”dirty tricks” allegation. Perot says he can, but he just doesn’t feel like it. Geez, even Nixon was never this moody. C

June 26
Bush on 20/20, ABC
Not reason enough to stay home Friday night. Interviewed by a kid-gloved Barbara Walters, the President looks more bushed than commanding, giving platitudinous answers in a fatigued tone. His appearance is buoyed by the presence of his more telegenic wife. Bush only comes to life when defending his children — something the nation does not need to hear more about. C-

June 29
Perot on A National Town Meeting: Who Is Ross Perot?, ABC
Perot debuts before a live audience and finds that real people can ask even tougher questions — about everything from abortion to school prayer — than reporters can. He stays cool before his first heckler (who calls him a ”pint-sized bully”), effectively cows Peter Jennings, and draws applause for savaging Bush over the Gulf war, but his short temper is still too much in evidence. C+

Memo to Perot
Because TV journalists seem to bring out the angry autocrat in you (have you ever met a tough question you liked?), either learn to love them or stay away entirely. Instead, keep talking directly to the people. Call-in shows are already your strong suit; now it’s time to hone your skills with studio audiences and to solve your gender-gap problem by showing you can address women’s issues. If you’re serious about staging electronic town meetings to deal with major issues, America already has a TV town hall. It’s called The Oprah Winfrey Show. Go to it.

Memo to Clinton
You almost blew it, pal, with that Flowers thing (we won’t even tell you the jokes that were going around) and that dumb, waffling comment you made about not inhaling pot. Now you’re on stronger footing again — with a chance to take the high road as the calm, articulate, younger candidate who appeals to gay voters, women voters, blue-collar voters, voters of color — in short, the Democrats’ core constituency. The more live call-in opportunities, the better. But stay away from Phil and Oprah; who wants a President who says of Gennifer Flowers, in effect, ”Seriously, Phil, we were just good friends”?

Memo to Bush
Get Dan off the cultural-elite bit, which appeals only to the already persuaded, and tell him to start digging in on Perot and Clinton. If you won’t talk to your opponents (and you should), at least talk about them. Publicity is not something to leave to your wife, your dog, or even your Vice President. The perfect show for you is serious and above the fray, and appeals to an older audience: 60 Minutes. An appearance with Arnold Schwarzenegger on The Tonight Show couldn’t hurt either.
Mark Harris, Suelain Moy, Lisa Schwarzbaum