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  • By Howard Kurtz
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, January 26, 1999; Page A1

    While serious news organizations were churning out serious reports on the president's State of the Union address last week, millions of Americans, less concerned with politics, learned about it from Jay Leno's monologue.

    "Clinton's speech lasted 77 minutes," Leno said, "which is the longest the president has ever gone without sex."

    A growing segment of the population is tuning in to politics through a different cultural channel Leno's raunchy routines on "The Tonight Show" or Don Imus's down-and-dirty ridicule on the radio or movie stars opining about the nation's woes on "Politically Incorrect."

    Fans of these shows get more than just sharp-edged satire. Whatever their degree of irreverence, these programs impart serious information amid the yuks. And their effect on public opinion is not to be taken lightly.

    "If Leno or Imus or Dennis Miller are making jokes about you, you have a serious political problem," said Mandy Grunwald, who was Clinton's media adviser in the 1992 campaign. "Whatever take they have on you is likely to stick much more solidly than what is in political ads or in papers like The Washington Post.

    "The squeamishness is long gone. Things have been said about him that have never been said about any president on television some true, some not."

    Leno sees no reason to back off the impeachment jokes. "We've reached a point where Congress does not affect anyone's life, so we look at it as entertainment," he said from Los Angeles. "It's like the Jerry Springer show, except everyone has a law degree. They can't fix health care, they can't fix Social Security, so we look at them to provide a few laughs on a daily basis."

    Imus says the scandal is juicier than any Hollywood gossip. "For those of us who are uninterested in Alec Baldwin or Brad Pitt or Gwyneth Paltrow, these people are our Paltrows," he said from New York. "They're infinitely more interesting because it's real life."

    In a 1996 Pew Research Center poll, a quarter of those surveyed said they had learned about the presidential campaign from the likes of Leno and David Letterman, a figure rising to 40 percent among those under 30. And 13 percent of those surveyed cited MTV as a source of political intelligence.

    Last week, for example, viewers and listeners of the three programs learned something about the impeachment debate; Clinton's proposals to boost the minimum wage and sue the tobacco industry; Larry Flynt; Republicans having extramarital affairs; political correctness on campus; the dominance of lawyers in government; the Y2K problem; the Navy's decision to accept high school dropouts; a new Viagra nose spray; and media coverage of minorities much of which may have been news to those who don't read the New York Times or watch "NBC Nightly News."

    Such viewers seem interested in unorthodox viewpoints. On "Politically Incorrect" last week, those holding forth on the scandal included cyberspace gossip columnist Matt Drudge, Paula Jones adviser Susan Carpenter-McMillan, combative former representative Bob Dornan, rapper Chuck D, comedian Howie Mandel, singer Queen Latifah and actors Rob Lowe and Molly Ringwald.

    Bill Maher, the program's host, says the traditional talking heads are badly out of touch on the impeachment story. "I hate to bash the media, but these gasbags feed the problem," he said in an interview. "The senators and congressmen go home and watch TV and see the other gasbags in the media talking about how historic this is, and they think they're Henry Clay. It's not historic to the people. We don't see it as historic. We see it as just another stupid version of a vicious political power play."

    The comics may be tapping into public sentiment that Washington has become a theater of the absurd. While numerous commentators praised Clinton's State of the Union address, Imus said on his radio show: "This is the same guy who was calling the fat intern at 6 in the morning for phone sex."

    "Entertainment, politics and entertainment about politics all comes across the same box," said New Yorker writer Kurt Andersen. "It has become a kind of low comedy, perfect for nothing but late-night jokes. Maybe people will look at Monica Lewinsky in the well of the Senate and get chills about the pageant of democracy, but I don't think so. It's news made for Comedy Central."

    Beyond their cherished role of deflating pomposity, these programs sometimes serve as an alternative delivery system for stories that the mainstream media won't touch. Leno was making jokes about Clinton and cigars well before news organizations reported on the incident involving Lewinsky. And he devoted several nights of his monologue to what turned out to be a bogus story about a supposed Clinton "love child."

    To wit: "Allegedly there might be a 13-year-old Bill Clinton in Arkansas. Well, we already have a 16-year-old Bill Clinton in the Oval Office."

    And: "I mean, who do you believe, a hooker or President Clinton? For most Americans that's a tough question."

    When the Star supermarket tabloid confirmed that its DNA tests on the teenager in question came back negative, Leno apologized on the air.

    Asked about the "love child" jokes, Leno said: "I waited until it was in a reasonably legitimate paper, like the New York Post. I don't regret it." As for the Lewinsky scandal, he said: "It's not Vietnam. Nobody's dying. We're not doing jokes about Bosnia. It's just sex. In a time when everyone's doing well, what's sillier, more funny than sex? You did something you shouldn't have done, you got caught and it's embarrassing."

    As if to underscore the point that there's nothing personal, Leno, who has met the president and first lady, says he still writes occasional jokes for Clinton and Vice President Gore.

    Maher, who also joshed about the supposed "love child," last week chided Drudge for reporting the story.

    "And you made jokes about it," Drudge said.

    "Hey, hey," Maher said. "I made one joke, and before I did, I took 30 seconds to tell the audience this is a rumor, don't believe it."

    Clinton, not surprisingly, has become a late-night punching bag. In 1998, according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs, Leno, Letterman, Maher and Conan O'Brien told 1,712 jokes about Clinton, compared with just 338 in 1995. The other top targets last year were Lewinsky (332 jokes), Ken Starr (139), Hillary Rodham Clinton (100), Linda Tripp (90) and Paula Jones (88).

    Republican strategist Mike Murphy has a more benign view: "People have marginalized politics so much that being made fun of doesn't matter that much anymore, and that's a tragedy. Leno will go into the behavior that the serious press is shocked and aghast to talk about, but it's still a comic buffoon caricature a frat boy chasing Monica around the White House."

    One reason for the popularity of political comedy shows may be that they reflect the way real people talk. When ABC's Cokie Roberts was interviewed by Imus, she said that if the Senate calls Lewinsky to testify, "we could pretend that we'll be shocked and horrified . . . but it's just too delicious." Such admissions are not generally made on network newscasts.

    Although Imus regularly skewers Clinton on his syndicated show, White House aide Paul Begala periodically calls and asks to be on the program.

    "I can give you 10 million reasons his 10 million listeners," Begala said. "I get more feedback from being on 'Imus' than from any other media appearance 'Crossfire,' 'Meet the Press,' 'Nightline,' 'Today.'" While the program "sometimes crosses the line" and is "sometimes tasteless," Begala said, Imus "has a knack for getting you to say things you wouldn't say in any other context. He listens and hangs you on your own bull."

    Imus, for his part, feels a twinge of guilt over his enjoyment of the scandal (though not enough to refrain from calling those involved "creeps" and "weasels"). "I feel less of a worthy citizen than I used to feel," he said. "I wish for these horrible things to happen. I wish for a hideous trial. I was very happy after [Bob] Livingston got caught," referring to the House speaker-designate who announced his resignation over past extramarital affairs.

    The trend toward merchandising politics as entertainment has been gathering force for two decades. In the 1980s, talk shows such as "The McLaughlin Group" and "Crossfire" spawned numerous imitators more interested in high-decibel combat than nuanced political debate.

    The merger of the news and entertainment cultures took a giant leap forward in 1992, when Clinton traded barbs with Imus, played his sax for Arsenio Hall, schmoozed with Larry King and chatted up students on MTV. "The notion a presidential candidate would go on any of these shows was denigrated, laughable," Grunwald said. "People really made fun of us."

    Last week, when former vice president Dan Quayle announced his presidential candidacy on "Larry King Live," no one raised an eyebrow.

    Mainstream news organizations have also been indulging themselves in more tabloid subjects since the audience for so-called serious news began to shrink. Newspaper circulation and network evening news ratings have both declined in recent years, while emotion-packed magazine shows such as "Dateline NBC" have catapulted into the Top 10. Ratings for the 1996 political conventions and the second presidential debate were the lowest of the television age.

    MSNBC and Fox News Channel joined CNN that year in the all-news arena, which began gorging on stories that could be marketed as ongoing soap operas, from O.J. Simpson to JonBenet Ramsey to Princess Diana to au pair Louise Woodward. The ranks of talk show hosts began to include actors like Charles Grodin, sportscasters like Keith Olbermann, former Simpson case attorneys like Johnnie Cochran and Marcia Clark, and such out-of-work politicians as Pat Buchanan, Jesse Jackson, Oliver North and Susan Molinari. Geraldo Rivera moved from daytime sleaze to nighttime political debate.

    In this celebrity-filled, wink-and-a-nod TV culture, the Monica story became a huge crossover hit, even drawing coverage on "Entertainment Tonight," "Extra" and "Access Hollywood."

    Maher insists he's had enough. "I hate this scandal," he said. "You know why? It's a rerun. . . . No matter how I tried to come up with different angles, the argument would be: 'Get out of his private life!' 'But he lied under oath!' It's like, shut up! I'm sick of this. If everyone's covering this, it makes us less unique."

    Clinton, of course, is not the only target of the nation's funnymen. Late last week, the comedians declared it to be Quayle season and dusted off their old jokes about the former vice president's spelling problems. But they quickly returned to the man who, whatever his moral and political failings, has been a singularly entertaining president.

    "When Reagan left, all the comedians were saying, 'Oh, the golden age is over,'" Leno said. "This is 10 times better. This is fabulous. This has everything."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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