Softer Shows Hard on McCain

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 3, 2008 10:03 AM

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 past 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."

Let's see what else is on the landscape:

It used to be that journalists would hear and then discard unsubstantiated garbage. Politico provides a peek into the in-box:

"As the campaign enters its last week, partisans have deluged reporters with e-mails and vented on blogs about why the media is suppressing stories about one candidate or the other. The unwritten Obama stories supposedly concern his Americanness: They raise doubts about his birth, his citizenship and his patriotism. The un-penned anti-McCain stories go to the quality he's made central to his career: honor. They suggest he's used foul language to his wife and that his military record isn't what it seems.

"So why hasn't Politico and the rest of the press reported on these stories? Well, some of them we're working on. But in many other cases, the stories were debunked, or there simply was no evidence for the claims."

Was it a coincidence that word of Obama's Kenyan aunt -- living in Boston public housing and apparently in the country illegally -- leaked to AP on the weekend before the election? Drudge and Sean Hannity have been flogging it hard.

Peggy Noonan, who crafted so many lovely words for Ronald Reagan and George Bush the elder, is clearly impressed by the previously obscure state senator:

"The case for Barack Obama, in broad strokes:

"He has within him the possibility to change the direction and tone of American foreign policy, which need changing; his rise will serve as a practical rebuke to the past five years, which need rebuking; his victory would provide a fresh start in a nation in which a fresh start would come as a national relief. He climbed steep stairs, born off the continent with no father to guide, a dreamy, abandoning mother, mixed race, no connections. He rose with guts and gifts. He is steady, calm, and, in terms of the execution of his political ascent, still the primary and almost only area in which his executive abilities can be discerned, he shows good judgment in terms of whom to hire and consult, what steps to take and moves to make. We witnessed from him this year something unique in American politics: He took down a political machine without raising his voice . . .

"Something new is happening in America. It is the imminent arrival of a new liberal moment."

But Powerline's Paul Mirengoff is ready to read some people out of the movement:

"One can be a conservative and sit this election out (though that would be a bad decision). One can also be a conservative and vote for Bob Barr (also a bad decision). But I don't see how one can be a conservative, as that term is currently understood in common political discourse, and vote for a candidate who, according to the non-partisan National Journal, has the most liberal voting record in the Senate.

"An Obama administration would almost certainly be to the left of the Clinton administration. It might well be to the left of any U.S. administration ever. A person who votes to bring on that administration may be admirable in many respects. He or she may have been a conservative recently. He or she may become a conservative soon, and should be welcome in that event. But if the term 'conservative' is given its ordinary, contemporary meaning, how can he or she be considered a conservative now?"

At National Review, Victor Davis Hanson issues a broadside against the media. Some of it is just partisan criticism of Barack, but he does make a couple of good points:

"We have never quite seen anything like the current media infatuation with Barack Obama, and its collective desire not to raise key issues of concern to the American people . . .

"The story that the media chose to ignore was not merely the Obama about-face on public financing, or even the enormous amounts of money that he has raised -- some of it under dubious circumstances involving foreign donors, prepaid credit cards, and false names. Instead, they were absolutely quiet about a historic end to liberal support for public financing . . .

"We know now almost all the details of Sarah Palin's pregnancies, whether the trooper who tasered her nephew went to stun or half stun, the cost of her clothes, and her personal expenses -- indeed, almost everything except how a mother of so many children gets elected councilwoman, mayor, and governor, routs an entrenched old-boy cadre, while maintaining near record levels of public support. Yet the American public knows almost nothing of what it should about the extraordinary career of Joe Biden, the 36-year veteran of the Senate. In unprecedented fashion, Biden has simply avoided the press for most of the last two months, confident that the media instead would deconstruct almost every word of 'good looking' Sarah Palin's numerous interviews with mostly hostile interrogators."

I do think the press gave Obama a pass on blowing off public financing, and no one can argue that Biden got a Palin level of scrutiny.

Remember how journalists were constantly complaining that Hillary's staff was impossible to deal with? They had a point, according to this piece in Politics magazine, with the aforementioned spokesman Phil Singer admitting he treated the media like the "enemy":

"More than anyone else, Singer came to symbolize the underlying problem of Clinton's ill-fated bid: a notion of inevitability, combined with hostility toward the media. Singer has been accused of everything from bringing NBC's Andrea Mitchell to tears to spreading a false rumor that political reporter Anne Kornblut was fired from The New York Times. Singer now plainly admits his failings. 'I yelled at more reporters than I ever dreamed I'd yell at,' he says. 'Honestly, I deeply regret it because not only was it wrong, but it got in the way, it made me less effective.' . . . One of the big mistakes we made from the outset was keeping the national press at arm's length.' . . .

"If you name a reporter, he can tell you how many times he hung up on him or her."

Having written about Hillary's inaccessibility early on -- and having her tell me her schedule was just too packed to talk to mere reporters -- I'll tell you exactly when the wall came down: right after she lost Iowa.

And at the Daily Beast, Jessi Klein says Obama's appeal transcends the political:

"Sure, people want to help Obama, but are a bunch of them equally committed to hooking up? Sort of like eHarmony, but without that creepy old homophobe from the commercials lecturing us on the 29 dimensions of compatibility. Who needs him when there's the undeniable compatibility that is the shared passion for Barack? Call it bHarmony . . .

"So how many of us are attending fundraisers with not entirely pure thoughts? How many of us are seduced by the notion that in a room full of people supporting Barack, maybe we'll meet guys who are at least a bit like Barack himself. Thoughtful, charming, a bit gangly, yet possessing the grace of a gazelle (a gazelle you want to text message with late into the night)."

Weekend Twittering: "Running out of material? Maddow: IF Osama releases a tape before Tues, will it affect election? Duh. What if aliens invade? Helps McCain?"

A moment later: "What if BUSH releases a videotape before Tuesday? Would that hurt McCain?"

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