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Sock It To 'Em

(CBS/AP)
Politicians have long seen entertainment shows as a venue to connect with voters on a more personal level. In 1968, presidential candidate Richard Nixon appeared on the popular (and at the time edgy) comedy show, "Laugh-In." Although he was on-air for just a few minutes, it was a far different Nixon than the sweaty, nervous vice president the nation remembered during his 1960 televised debate with John Kennedy. In 1992, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton showed up on the red-hot "Arsenio Hall" show, where he donned thick shades and jammed with the band on his saxophone. The moment helped cement Clinton's image as the hip, "new generation" politician.

Such stops have become part of campaign strategies, particularly for presidential candidates. In fact, they've become such a part of electioneering that you're now far more likely to find White House aspirants showing up on shows like "Oprah," "The Tonight Show," the "Late Show" or "Saturday Night Live" than "Face the Nation" or "Meet the Press" – at least in later stages of the campaign cycle. These appearances offer politicians a chance to joke and laugh, often at themselves, and play the role of good sport. They aren't without pitfalls – President Clinton's MTV town hall meeting in 1994 led to an awkward admission of the style of underwear he preferred (briefs) – but they're as close to a sure thing as you can find.

Nationally-known figures are generally the only ones who are going to get a seat next to Leno, Letterman or Oprah. But thanks to one of the hottest comedy shows on the air today, lesser-known politicians are getting their shot too. Only they're learning a potentially more damaging lesson on the "Colbert Report."

Comedy Central's faux-news talk show, hosted by a Bill O'Reilly-mocking Stephen Colbert, has been a hit since its debut last fall. The ratings have been good by cable standards and the show, along with it's partner "The Daily Show," are constantly circulating around the Web via sites like YouTube. In a series that serves as a true public service, Colbert and his staff have set about exploring every congressional district in the country. Basically, each week the show highlights a district, gives some history of the region, explains the basic make-up of who lives there and interviews the member of Congress representing them.

Appearing on a popular, national television show is a great opportunity for members who sometimes struggle to even get their local newspapers to cover them. Or it should be. Congressman Bob Wexler, Democrat from Florida's 13th District may be having second thoughts about his appearance on the show last night. Here's how Editor & Publisher tells it:

Rep. Robert Wexler, a Democrat who represents the Boca Raton area in Florida, skated through the first part of the interview segment with good humor. Colbert usually poses offbeat or absurd questions and traps his guests into making revealing or just embarrassing statements.

His final approach on Thursday was to point out to Wexler that since he was basically unopposed for re-election this year he could probably say anything and it would not hurt him at all. So Colbert suggested: Now this is "just kidding," but why don't you say something that would normally cost you the election, even if not true-- for example, that you enjoy cocaine because "it is a fun thing to do"?

Wexler laughed and amiably repeated: "Because it's a fun thing to do." Presumably he does not use cocaine, but he went along with the gag. Colbert, trying to get him clearly on the record, then said, no, say the whole thing, and Wexler dutifully replied: "I enjoy cocaine because it's a fun thing to do."

Then Colbert got him to say the same thing about seeing prostitutes-- and finally that using cocaine and prostitutes at the same time was really fun.

Both "Colbert" and the "Daily Show" are funny and popular partly because the humor in underpinned with some pretty serious cultural and political observation. When Jon Stewart appeared on CNN's "Crossfire" and attacked that show for harming America, it wasn't just laughed off because everyone knew he had a point. But both shows are still out for laughs and even while taking viewers through a trip of each district (something real news shows wouldn't likely even do), Colbert is looking for comedy.

That's where our elected officials come in. They may think being featured on the show will make them look hip or happening, but politicians should be more media savvy than that. First of all, the Colbert interviews are taped, thus always at the mercy of selective editing. Second, like any good interviewer, Colbert knows what he's after – and is sneaky about getting it. What he's after, of course, is to make you laugh at them, not necessarily with them.

You can watch the Wexler interview here and see what all the fuss is about. This appears destined to be all over the Web in short order. The good news for Wexler is that he's about to be introduced to a whole new audience. And after his "cocaine and prostitutes" lines make the rounds, the better news might be that he's running unopposed for re-election this year.