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Obama's Talk Show Advantage Is No Idle Chatter

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 3, 2008

The presidential candidates have made it through a two-year media maze that at times dwelled on cleavage, cackling, Paris Hilton, lipstick, haircuts, houses, preachers, pregnancy, flag pins, witchcraft, designer wardrobes and Joe Wurzelbacher.

As they head toward tomorrow's verdict, Barack Obama, John McCain and their running mates have survived hundreds of interviews, from Sunday morning grillings to Sarah Palin's close encounters with Katie Couric and Charlie Gibson.

But daytime and late-night shows have been an underrated factor in this campaign, and an undeniable advantage for Obama. Ellen DeGeneres, David Letterman and panelists on "The View" all confronted McCain, while Obama has basically joked and danced his way through such appearances, including a "Daily Show" stint last week in which Jon Stewart asked him about "the whole socialism/Marxist thing." If anyone doubts there is a liberal entertainment establishment, it has been vividly on display.

What's different this year is that the softer shows have often made hard news, perhaps out of a desire to be taken more seriously, or at least to generate headlines.

"We had a greater impact than any daytime show has ever had on an election," says Bill Geddie, executive producer of "The View." "Daytime is about keeping it light, keeping it fun, and we said, 'Let's go the other way. Let's talk about real stuff.' "

McCain seemed to enjoy making a final pitch on "Saturday Night Live" over the weekend with Tina Fey reprising her role as his running mate. But it hasn't all been fair-and-balanced territory. "Anyone can watch the shows and see how Barack Obama and John McCain were treated and see the contrast. It's as plain as day," McCain spokesman Michael Goldfarb says.

The Democratic nominee's campaign doesn't minimize the importance of such programs. "We make every effort to meet and talk to voters where they are, and that's not just targeting the evening newscasts," spokesman Bill Burton says. "Barack Obama is one guy all the time, whether he's talking to Brian Williams or Tyra Banks."

Phil Singer, a former spokesman for Hillary Rodham Clinton, says the chat shows are a key weapon in the communications arsenal. "Before each primary election day, we'd try to schedule her on as many of these shows as possible," he says. "You'd try to get her on the Letterman show or 'Access Hollywood.' It gave people a chance to see a different side of her. We were at a financial disadvantage, and these shows command huge audiences."

It was considered daring -- some even said unpresidential -- when Bill Clinton played the sax for Arsenio Hall and schmoozed with Larry King during the 1992 campaign. Now working that circuit is as mandatory as gobbling corn dogs at county fairs.

When Obama appeared on "Ellen" 10 days ago, the host challenged him: "Michelle was on the show, and she was talking some smack about your moves." The senator from Illinois responded, "I am a better dancer than John McCain."

But when McCain was a guest last spring, DeGeneres chided him on the issue of gay marriage, saying, "It just seems like there is this old way of thinking that we are not all the same." McCain awkwardly responded that "we just have a disagreement" and wished her "every happiness." Both McCain and Obama oppose gay marriage to varying degrees.

The contrast was equally striking on "The View." When Obama chatted up the ladies in March, ABC newswoman Barbara Walters told him: "Maybe we shouldn't say this. We thought you were very sexy."

But when McCain appeared in September, co-host Joy Behar invoked two of his ads, one accusing Obama of supporting sex education for kindergartners and the other charging that Obama's lipstick-on-a-pig comment was directed at Palin. "Those two ads are untrue, they're lies," Behar said, forcing McCain on the defensive. And Whoopi Goldberg asked whether she should "fear being returned to slavery" in a McCain administration.

Liberal commentators cheered the women for challenging McCain in a way, they said, that mainstream news shows had not. But the candidate's wife, Cindy, who had joined her husband on "The View," told a Republican audience, "They picked our bones clean."

Geddie says that his panelists are mostly liberal but that the program also conducted a "soft interview" with McCain last April. He says both candidates were invited for a more serious discussion after the conventions and only McCain accepted. "I wish we could have had the chance to do the same thing with Barack Obama, but he didn't feel the need to come back," Geddie says.

When McCain was on "The Late Show" last month -- after a spat triggered by his canceling a previous appearance -- Letterman put aside the jokes to press him about his running mate. What would the Republican nominee say, Letterman asked, "If I were to run upstairs, wake you up in the middle of the night and say, 'John, is Sarah Palin really the woman to lead us through the next four, eight years? Through the next 9/11 attack?' "

Letterman also questioned McCain about making an issue of Obama's ties to onetime terrorist William Ayers, asking whether McCain's relationship with convicted felon G. Gordon Liddy was in the same category. McCain replied that Liddy had gone to prison and paid his debt to society.

The tone was very different when Obama did Dave in September. Letterman mainly asked what he thought of Palin and joked about the flap over Obama's lipstick comment.

McCain has done fine in some appearances, for example with Jay Leno, who hosted Michelle Obama last week. And he seemed to enjoy demonstrating his rib-grilling skills with Rachael Ray.

Late-night monologues aren't in the same category, but it's telling that the McCain ticket was the target of 475 jokes by Letterman and Leno from Sept. 1 to Oct. 24, while the Obama ticket was zinged just 69 times, according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs. McCain just can't catch a break in the pop culture wars.

The fundamental assumption in appearing on such programs is that the candidate gets to relax, banter and skim lightly over the issues. The hosts have every right to inject their ideology; a conservative "View" panelist, Elizabeth Hasselbeck, campaigned with Palin last week, and Oprah Winfrey is famously in Obama's corner. But it does seem to change the terms of the bargain and risk alienating viewers who are rooting for the other ticket.

Ellen DeGeneres and Joy Behar aren't going to swing the election. But in an age when candidates have to sell themselves as personalities, not just policymakers, the climate has been far more hospitable for Obama.

Double Standard

Remember when the media narrative about Sarah Palin was that she was hiding from the press?

Other than her initial interviews with ABC and CBS, in which she stumbled badly, Palin was roundly criticized for refusing to take journalists' questions. In the last two weeks, however, she has spoken to NBC's Brian Williams, ABC's Elizabeth Vargas and the Chicago Tribune's Jill Zuckman -- not to mention near-daily encounters with Fox's Sean Hannity -- and with her traveling press corps on several occasions.

Joe Biden, meanwhile, hasn't taken questions from his press pack since Sept. 10. But that lack of access has barely been reported, beyond a Time magazine piece last week about "Hidin' Biden."

Biden spokesman David Wade says the senator from Delaware has done 211 interviews, most of them with local outlets but some with network morning shows and Katie Couric, and one with the New York Times. "He's taken tough questions," Wade says. "We've tended to look toward outlets where we can get coverage."

Though Biden has a small press contingent following him, surely the reporters could make national news if the candidate held forth on the plane? Wade's last line of defense: "There is a finite amount of time to spread around."

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