Frank Rich: TV Lets Candidates Be as Inauthentic as They Want to Be





Frank Rich, in the NYT (Feb. 8, 2004):

To survey the progress of America's political culture over four decades, you need rerun only two TV shows, each starring a Massachusetts Democrat with the initials J.F.K.

On June 16, 1960, Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy, in a natty suit, sat next to the brilliant and much-mourned Jack Paar on NBC's "Tonight Show" and fielded more than 30 minutes' worth of questions from his host, the droll comedian Peggy Cass and the New York studio audience. The subjects were the U-2 incident, the failed Soviet summit, Cuba and "the Catholic question." Mr. Paar tried to elicit a laugh only once, asking the senator to recall amusing anecdotes from the primary campaign trail. Kennedy was stumped, and when his one example ("I was made an honorary Indian") landed with a thud, the two men scampered back for safety to the cold war.

On Nov. 11, 2003, Senator John Forbes Kerry appeared on the same NBC show, now presided over by Jay Leno from Burbank. But instead of strolling onstage in his senatorial uniform, the candidate arrived, via Harley-Davidson, attired in a brown leather jacket, black boots, a denim shirt and jeans. Mr. Kerry fielded a few questions about his then-lagging campaign, but that was secondary to his comic "material." The candidate mused that the show's other guest, the puppet Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, might be his pick as a ticket mate and quipped, "Can you imagine Triumph debating Dick Cheney?"

Well, you had to be there. Mr. Kerry doing comedy is cognitive dissonance run amok. Though the senator does ride a Harley-Davidson in real life (it was a less proletarian Ducati before the campaign), his entire performance reeked of phoniness. A dour Boston Brahmin was trying to pass himself off as a wisecracking biker. And he was doing so after having given an interview (to Julia Reed of Vogue) criticizing President Bush's handlers for identical theatrics: "They put him in a brown jacket and jeans and get him to move some hay or drive a truck, and all of a sudden he's the Marlboro Man."

But if the late-night TV performance intended to reveal the "authentic," non-Washington John Kerry was inauthenticity incarnate, Kennedy's "Tonight Show" turn of 11 election cycles earlier was nearly as bogus. By the standards of 1960, a presidential candidate's appearance on an entertainment program was considered a bit shocking; no politician had done it before. In his introduction, Mr. Paar felt it necessary to prep the audience at length. After noting that the host of NBC's "Meet the Press," Lawrence Spivak, did his job "very well," he added: "I have noticed if you watch political programs, they ask political questions and the answers are political. . . . When it's all over, no one's said anything. In this relaxed atmosphere of the `Tonight Show' you meet people who aren't on guard and not as tense and perhaps not as political."

Or so he wished. Though Paar was as charming and human and witty as ever (especially when he had to interrupt his guest to hawk such sponsors as Lip Quick and ReaLemon), Kennedy responded with fat paragraphs of well-practiced stump boilerplate. Paar would later commend the candidate for his "very brave and courageous" act of appearing on a show where "anything can happen," but the candidate made sure nothing would happen. He still didn't have the nomination locked up and his political agenda was not to appear too young. So he offered a phony persona that was exactly the inverse of Kerry's act 43 years later: he suppressed his natural wit and youthfulness to make himself seem as stolid and humorless as his opponent, Richard Nixon. In the debates yet to come Kennedy would prove far more up-to-speed than Nixon about how to manipulate the still young medium of TV. (He didn't hang with the Rat Pack for nothing.) The character he presented, however fictionalized, was golden. But whether we ever saw the "real" Kennedy in his public persona remains a subject of historical debate.

 


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