Forget Iraq. Forget the economy. Forget those pesky National Guard records.
Today on the "Dr. Phil" show, voters can find out all sorts of unusual tidbits about their president, such as: Did Papa Bush spank Jenna and Barbara when they were little? How did daddy feel when Jenna stuck out her tongue at reporters? And does Dr. Phil have any advice for the president on how to keep his "Family First" while on the campaign trail?
That's right: in a tradition started by Bill Clinton in 1992 -- remember his saxophone performance on "Arsenio" or the "boxers or briefs?" query on MTV -- that paved the way for appearances by both Bush and Al Gore on "Oprah" in 2000, the president has taken his campaign to the world of daytime advice-show television. And his competitor, John Kerry (who recently appeared on "Live With Regis and Kelly"), is following.
Both Bush and Kerry, accompanied by their wives, have sat for hour-long interviews with Dr. Phil, aka Phil McGraw, who has gone from being Oprah Winfrey's on-air advice expert to having his own program, where he talks "common sense" to Americans with imperfect lives. Just last week, for example, Dr. Phil explained to a couple that they needed to shape up , because (in his professional opinion) their son exhibited many of the classic traits of a serial killer.
With "Family First" the title of McGraw's most recent book, he has promised both candidates the questions would be limited to family-oriented topics. The Bush segment airs today at 3 p.m. on Channel 4; Kerry and his wife Teresa Heinz Kerry will appear next Wednesday in the same time slot.
"We're not talking about Iraq," says Chandler Hayes, the show's publicist.
The Bushes sat for the interview in late July; Kerry and Heinz Kerry were interviewed in Boston earlier this month.
According to Hayes, the show's producers contacted both campaigns about a possible appearance and "they both said yes immediately." It was a no-brainer: as Dr. Phil points out on his own Web site, his show is a big "media buy" for campaign advertising given its demographic (the show regularly reaches nearly 7 million viewers, many of them women, a desirable target for both campaigns). Or, as political strategist Mandy Grunwald put it, if you're already advertising on shows like "Oprah" or "Dr. Phil," why wouldn't you want an entire free hour to reach that same audience?"
"If you're talking about undecided voters," says Grunwald, who orchestrated Clinton's talk-show appearances in the 1992 campaign, " . . . the people who watch the evening news. . . know who they are voting for. The people who watch Dr. Phil are far more likely not to have made up their mind. And it's hard to find undecided voters. . . . so this is not so much about what you're going to say. It's about going where the voters are."
Clinton's appearance on the sagging "Arsenio" show in 1992 gave the late-night host an audience spike, drawing 5.4 million. On "Oprah" in 2000, the Gore segment drew 8.7 million viewers -- more than a million over her average -- and the Bush segment scored 10.3 million. Bush's appearance on "Late Show With David Letterman" in 2000 gave that show its best numbers since it had the "Survivor" finale as a lead-in.
Politicians generally offer ratings boosts to late-night talk TV. Jay Leno's show spiked when he had Arnold Schwarzenegger on to announce his run for California's governor; Letterman scored a win over Leno two Mondays ago when he hosted Kerry, and Jon Stewart's numbers for "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central rose with an August Kerry appearance.
Those shows, however, make politics a main topic of conversation, albeit with the requisite laughs. Dr. Phil, on the other hand, is a self-help guru who is known for telling people what they're doing wrong in their lives. What he'll say to Bush and Kerry is unpredictable -- the show is not providing advance transcripts -- but don't expect any "news" or relevant campaign sound bites.
"America watched Paris Hilton go on a farm, too, but it doesn't mean any agriculture took place," says Bob Garfield, host of NPR's "On the Media." "Trash TV is part of the culture, and actual inquiry is not."
When they placed Clinton in nontraditional TV shows, the move "was seen as so heretical and crazy, and the Bush Sr. campaign just sneered at us," says Grunwald, "even Democrats were calling us and saying, 'Why are you doing this? This is beneath him.' "
But the rationale was simple, Grunwald says. Voters did not yet know what would become, legendarily, "the man from Hope" saga, referring to Clinton's childhood in Arkansas. And for a campaign in a fundraising lull, this was free exposure.
On "Dr. Phil," Bush gets an opportunity to soften his hard-edged, war-president image by sitting next to his wife and talking about his family. And Kerry gets a chance to sell his personal life story -- that is, the one beyond the Vietnam service -- to a potentially new audience.
"The truth is," Grunwald says, "if they could get by with appearing on 'Wheel of Fortune,' they would, because that's where the voters are."