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Political Laugh Track

Once it was rare for Washington bigwigs to risk their dignity for laughs on TV talk shows. Now the Hollywood route is routine, safe even for talk about somber issues like terrorism.

Vice President Dick Cheney jokes with Jay Leno about hiding in his undisclosed location. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld chuckles as David Letterman's mom urges him to "put the hammer" on Osama bin Laden.

First lady Laura Bush made light of the president's tussle with a pretzel when she appeared on Leno's "Tonight Show" last week. He's practicing "safe snacks" now, she cracked.

And Secretary of State Colin Powell fielded questions on MTV, upsetting some conservatives when he endorsed condoms for sexually active young people.

Republicans who scoffed as Bill Clinton blazed political trails through popular culture now accept chats with Regis, Oprah, Jay and Dave as proper political discourse.

The Bush administration - from George W. Bush's frequent campaign stops on comedy shows to this month's round of appearances by top officials - shows the trend is here to stay.

"What Clinton proved is television is television, and celebrity is celebrity and it doesn't matter where you get it," said Marlin Fitzwater, White House press secretary when Bush's father was president.

In the 1992 presidential race, when Clinton made headlines by donning dark glasses to play saxophone on Arsenio Hall's show, Fitzwater advised then-President Bush to stay off such programs to preserve his dignity.

"I was wrong," Fitzwater says now.

Indeed, Bush seemed stodgy as Clinton skated from "Good Morning America" to late-night talk to MTV, even chatting about his youthful experience with marijuana. Meanwhile, the race's wild card, Ross Perot, launched his campaign on "Larry King Live."

Earlier presidents had tested the waters - even Richard Nixon.

After a couple of bruising election defeats, Nixon lightened his image by playing piano on Jack Paar's program. And just weeks before winning the White House in 1968, Nixon delivered a single, stiff line on "Laugh-In": "Sock it to me?"

But that was a far cry from Clinton divulging on MTV that he preferred briefs to boxer shorts.

Fast forward to 2000, when George W. Bush and his rival, Vice President Al Gore, hopscotched from daytime talk shows to reading Letterman's Top 10 list to "Saturday Night Live" skits.

The presidential candidates mocked themselves in a "Saturday Night Live" special shown just two days before Election Day - Bush poking fun at his mangling of words, Gore at his tendency to inflate his place in history.

"I have seen things on the show I thought were, in a word, offensible," Bush said.

Gore: "I was one of the very first to be offended by material on 'Saturday Night Live."'

Entertainment shows aggressively court candidates by offering free air time, often unedited. When Bush appeared on Leno's "Tonight Show" during the campaign, he got more time in one night than during the entire month on NBC News, said Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. And surveys suggest millions of Americans rely on comedy shows to keep them up to date on the news.

"I don't think the word 'dignity' is relevant anymore," Lichter said. "The human touch is what counts, and if you can get that by chatting with Jay Leno, that's fine. You don't lose from it."

Of course, Hollywood's allure isn't all about politics. Like just about everyone else, politicians seem drawn to star power. Bush and his team may prove to be smitten, too.

Bush invited Clint Eastwood to his first state dinner and appointed Bo Derek a Kennedy Center trustee. The cast of NBC's "West Wing," who play a fictional Democratic White House staff, got a private tour of the real thing recently.

Bush political adviser Karl Rove huddled with Hollywood executives to seek help rallying America around the war on terrorism.

Democrats have long had an advantage in endorsements from show business, but President Reagan - who was, after all, an actor - narrowed the gap.

Clinton was adept at collecting campaign contributions from Hollywood, but Democratic criticism of violence in movies and music may have dampened entertainment industry enthusiasm for the Gore-Joe Lieberman ticket in 2000. Bush's anti-regulatory philosophy is friendlier to show business than Clinton's policies were.

"I expect the relationship to grow over time," said Los Angeles conservative David Horowitz, an early supporter who introduced Bush to director Oliver Stone - one of Hollywood's most vocal liberals - and other entertainment notables at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

Highlights from politicians' appearances on popular TV:

  • 1963: Former Vice President Richard Nixon jokes about the Kennedys and plays his own piano composition on Jack Paar's talk show - part of his "New Nixon" makeover after losing races for the presidency and the governorship of California.
  • 1968: In the final weeks of the presidential campaign, Nixon goes on "Laugh-In" and says, "Sock it to me?"
  • 1976: After "Saturday Night Live" comedian Chevy Chase lampoons him as loopy and klutzy, President Ford does a cameo to appropriate Chase's trademark line: "I'm Gerald Ford, and you're not."
  • 1992: Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton makes headlines by playing saxophone on Arsenio Hall's late-night show.
  • 1993: Vice President Al Gore smashes a government-issue ashtray on David Letterman's "Late Show" to promote his campaign to get rid of red tape - and to liven up his stiff image.
  • 1994: On MTV, a teen-age girl asks President Clinton, "Boxers or briefs?" And he actually answers. "Usually briefs."
  • 1995: Republican Senate leader Bob Dole says informally on Letterman's show that he's running for president next year. Dole's first public appearance after conceding defeat in 1996 was on the Letterman show.
  • 2000: George W. Bush kisses Oprah Winfrey on the cheek, dresses like Regis Philbin and is questioned by Letterman about the death penalty.

    Gore, his Democratic opponent, also talks to daytime hosts Rosie O'Donnell and Queen Latifah. On the Letterman show, Gore reads a list of his Top 10 campaign slogans, including, "Remember, America: I gave you the Internet and I can take it away."

    Bush and Gore mock themselves in a "Saturday Night Live" special shown two days before the election.

    Bush: "I have seen things on the show I thought were, in a word, offensible."

    Gore: "I was one of the very first to be offended by material on 'Saturday Night Live."'

  • 2002: First lady Laura Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney chat with Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show"; Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is interviewed by Letterman's mother; Secretary of State Colin Powell takes questions from young people around the world on MTV.

    By Connie Cass

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