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  •   Enough Presidential Hopefuls to Fill Air Force One

    By Howard Kurtz
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, December 22, 1997; Page C01

    The political press has been atwitter over the possibility that – brace yourself – Howard Dean may run for president in 2000.

    The Democratic governor of Vermont will have plenty of company, if the great gushing gobs of media speculation are to be believed. Others said by reporters to be "eyeing," "weighing" or "contemplating" White House bids are Paul Wellstone, Fred Thompson, George W. Bush, Dick Gephardt, John Kerry and Bob Kerrey. Also, Jesse Jackson, Bob Smith, George Pataki, Pete Wilson, Newt Gingrich, Ed Rendell and Pat Buchanan. Oh, and Bill Bradley, John Kasich, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Lamar Alexander, Steve Forbes, Jack Kemp, Dan Quayle, Elizabeth Dole, Gary Bauer and John Ashcroft.

    Can we get real here for a moment?

    Are most of these folks plausible candidates with an actual shot at the Oval Office? Or are they pawns in a parlor game played by a bored press corps that started the 2000 sweepstakes even before the 1996 election was over?

    "Virtually anyone who's ever thought of running for president," says columnist Mark Shields, "which is virtually anybody who holds elective office in Washington and shaves on a regular basis, said they're not going to sit it out" after Bill Clinton ousted a seemingly invincible President Bush in 1992.

    "There's no hierarchy in the Republican Party for the first time in 50 years," says U.S. News & World Report columnist Gloria Borger. "It's nobody's turn to be president." Besides, says Borger, reporters have to cover each potential contender because "we are so bad at predicting who has a real shot at it. If you look at our track record, we don't know who's going to take off."

    Politicians, of course, love to promote the notion that they are presidential timber because it boosts their stature at home (at least until they self-destruct in New Hampshire).

    One way to get mentioned is to deny any interest in 2000, thereby challenging journalists to prove that you're a liar. Almost every piece about Bush begins with the Texas governor insisting he's not looking beyond his reelection, followed by a handicapping of his White House prospects. Vermont's Dean quickly denied reports that he told Vice President Gore he would challenge him for the Democratic nomination, but the reported incident put him "in play" like some little-known stock.

    Another way to get mentioned is to let others do the mentioning. Ted Kennedy says people would takeKerry, his fellow Massachusetts senator, seriously. Consultant Ralph Reed says Missouri's Sen. Ashcroft would do extremely well. Mario Cuomo predicts that former vice president Quayle will be the GOP nominee. Political adviser Oxman says Philadelphia's Mayor Rendell has been approached by Democrats about running if Gore does not.

    Others simply play coy. "I can think of reasons to do it. I can think of reasons not to do it," says Minnesota's Sen. Wellstone. And Nebraska's Sen. Kerrey candidly acknowledges the "self-delusion" involved in seeing a president in the mirror.

    Still, reporters feel they can't afford to brush off the long shots. "After Jimmy Carter won in '76," Shields says, "Mike Barnicle of the Boston Globe said to me, 'This means you have to be nice to every state senator.' "

    Sometimes it takes the local press to provide a reality check. The Burlington Free Press, for example, said that Dean "would face almost insurmountable obstacles if he ran for president in 2000."

    Hey, why spoil the fun?

    Tabloid Times

    It comes as little surprise that tabloid TV shows specialize in subjects that are, well, tabloid. But not all such stories are reported in approving terms.

    According to the Center for Media and Public Affairs, nearly two-thirds of the programs' reports on self-destructive behavior (such as gambling and drug and alcohol abuse) included criticism or negative judgments. Nearly six in 10 crime stories also included such rebukes. But fewer than one in five stories on sexual behavior included any critical remarks.

    The center reviewed 333 reports over two weeks on "Hard Copy," "Inside Edition" and "American Journal," along with the show biz programs "Entertainment Tonight," "Extra" and "Access Hollywood." All told, 24 percent of the stories involved crime, 21 percent sex, 17 percent accidents or disasters, 10 percent self-destructive behavior and 7 percent uplifting themes.

    In the sexual arena, the leading topic was extramarital sex (the Kennedys, Frank Gifford, etc.). This was followed by sexy clothing (lingerie shows, wet T-shirt contests), homosexuality ("Ellen"), unusual sexual practices (Marv Albert) and pornography (an X-rated actress demanding "respect" for her work).

    Adultery was criticized in 40 percent of the relevant stories, followed by criticism of unusual sexual practices (20 percent), other non-marital sex (19 percent) and pornography (11 percent). Homosexuality and transvestism were not criticized.

    Double Talk?

    President Clinton bristled when ABC's John Donvan told him that some of his own aides view his race relations initiative as "in chaos," "confused" and "little more than 'presidential Oprah.' " Americans, Clinton shot back at last week's news conference, were puzzled by "all these anonymous sources."

    Despite Donvan's pointed question, White House insiders were quick to note, ABC is among the networks asking to co-sponsor a presidential meeting on racial issues. ABC spokeswoman Eileen Murphy said the network wants to stage "a serious town meeting on race. We would draw a distinction between the question John asked about talk show or Oprah-esque appearances and the kind of thing we pitched to him."

    Quote of the Week

    "Death is just a peg." – Marvin Siegel, chief New York Times obituary editor, in the newsletter Times Talk.

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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