"I've tried to uphold the dignity of this office," said George Bush with a straight face, or as straight as his gets. Larry King listened thoughtfully, or as thoughtfully as he gets.
But surely dignity was one of the first victims of the 1992 presidential race as it was run on television, where all campaigns are now fought. The talkshowfication of America continues apace; now the political process is conquered too.
Perhaps when 1996 rolls around, presidential candidates will take turns popping up on sitcoms or soaps or "Beverly Hills, 90210" just to show they're regular Joes. And Janes. They can play themselves on "Saturday Night Live."
Where did it all start spinning hopelessly out of control? When Bill Clinton and wife Hillary turned up on cable's Nashville Network for a little spontaneous hog-calling? Or when Bush, in a sad fit of desperation, buttonholed Katie Couric during her "Today" show chat with Barbara Bush and wouldn't go away, hanging around like a stage-door Johnny hoping to get a glimpse of a star?
For Bush to claim he's upholding "dignity" on CNN's "Larry King Live" seems painfully ironic. If he were really all that interested in upholding dignity, he wouldn't have been there. It was the Friday night before the election, however, and this year the candidates have proved they never met a camera they didn't like, unless of course it's a camera under the province of journalists.
King asked Bush about referring to Clinton and Al Gore as "bozos" and calling Gore "Mr. Ozone." Bush said, "I think maybe 'bozo' was wrong," but added that he felt duty bound to continue calling Gore "Mr. Ozone Hole" (thus misquoting himself) because of Gore's alleged environmental extremism.
Of the "bozos" crack, Bush conceded: "Maybe it hurt my dignity to do that."
Dignity and decorum may, of course, be lost values in TV's noisy new national village, and maybe nobody thinks a thing of it anymore. Still, at least a few observers must have squirmed when King ended a previous Bush visit by telling viewers to be sure to tune in tomorrow night when his guests would be Suzanne Somers and Whoopi Goldberg.
He's got the president of the United States sitting there, for Pete's sake, and he's doing program promos! Friday night's "special 90-minute edition" of "Larry King Live" only amounted to about an hour and three minutes of questions and answers, the rest of the time going to commercials and plugs for other CNN shows, but at least those were done back at the studio and not by King as the president sat there.
Four years ago, this sort of thing didn't happen. The scaling down and informalizing of everything hadn't gone quite so far, and you didn't have quite such jarring juxtapositions. On Friday night, Larry told viewers to be sure to tune in Monday for Robert Redford.
King is no slave to propriety, obviously, or to good taste, having done all his candidate interviews, including the one with Bush in the White House, in shirt sleeves and suspenders.
It is true that John Kennedy, Richard Nixon and other political figures appeared with Jack Paar on "The Tonight Show" and on Paar's prime-time hour in the late '50s and early '60s. This was considered a change of pace, however, a chance for political figures to show their human sides (Nixon memorably played the piano).
But the Paar show wasn't the center ring for the entire political process. No other talk show was, either.
So high is the interest level in the election that today, Sally Jessy Raphael is generously going to put aside the pimps and the hookers and the Siamese twins and actually devote one of her shows to politics. Of course, some viewers may call that a step down rather than a step up.
Barbara Bush will be piped in from Des Moines for the occasion.
The last weekend before Election Day was thick with campaign talk, of course, but the candidates themselves were not that much in evidence. Bush did show up on CNN's scantily rated "Newsmaker Sunday," where he continued in his last-ditch strategy of calling things crazy and nutty and wacky.
The polls are "totally out of whack," Bush told Frank Sesno, decrying "nutty pollsters" and "nutty polling." He said it's been "a crazy year" in American politics. It's not enough that Bush and the other candidates have gravitated toward the gentler and easier soft-talk shows like King's; Bush also goes to great lengths to trash the more serious talk shows, which he has called "crazy" and populated by "talking heads."
Bush told King on Friday night that he objected to "these talking heads that come on" and "those paid talking heads that come on those Sunday talk shows and write me off." He denounced post-debate analysis on all the networks and told King, "You got a guy, Bode, B-o-d-e" on CNN, mispronouncing correspondent Ken Bode's name (Bush said "Boad" instead of "Boh-dee"), but then offering a quick impression of him:
"Looks to us like Bill Clinton won the debate again," Bush said in a deep mocking voice as he did the impression, then scoffed, "Well I mean, come on!" Bush praised King for not having any of that pesky old analysis. Take a bow, Larry.
Somewhere, Spiro Agnew is smiling.
On the Sunday talk shows yesterday, there was amused acknowledgment of Bush's flailing. "First, gentlemen, thank you for taking the time to join us on one of these crazy, nutty Sunday talk shows," Tim Russert said to party chiefs Rich Bond and Ron Brown on "Meet the Press." Even Sesno picked up on it, greeting Bush with, "Welcome, Mr. President, to one of those nutty Sunday talk shows."
"Don't take it personally," Bush replied. "I mean, I'm very selective in who I put into that category." Who's in and who's out? He hasn't said. Bush also gave this advice to viewers: "Don't listen to those who say we're in a recession."
Having savaged the scribes, Bush prepared to mingle with the Pharisees; he made a much-ballyhood appearance on MTV, widely considered Clinton Country, last night. All this turned out to be was Bush fielding a few questions on the back of a speeding train from MTV's Tabitha Soren. Bush seemed peevish and cranky and not really very concerned with impressing the MTV audience.
Hardly a talk show exists that has been safe from visits by candidates or their minions. If Morton Downey Jr. were still on TV with his shout-fests, they might have turned up there for some verbal brawling.
Barbara Bush recently popped up on "Live With Regis and Kathie Lee," the popular syndicated daytime show usually preoccupied with movie stars and make-overs. Hillary Clinton and Margot Perot also appeared on separate episodes of the series. Both Clinton and Perot talked positively about their husbands and in general terms about the rigors of campaigning. Barbara Bush, however, barged out of the chute with a load of vitriol for Bill Clinton, including the seemingly rehearsed remark, "He talks the talk but he can't walk the walk."
It was a singularly shrill and embarrassing performance, but by now shrill and embarrassing performances on all sides have become so numerous that little attention was paid.
We're lucky it's ending because everybody is getting testy. Yesterday on "This Week With David Brinkley," Sam Donaldson was snarlingly rude to Cokie Roberts, snapping at her and patronizing her as if patterning his behavior on "The McLaughlin Group's" boorish Fred Barnes, who displays chilling hostility in comments directed at fellow panel member Eleanor Clift.
Brinkley was endearingly succinct. Regardless of who wins tomorrow, he said, it will all be over: "Peace," he said, "at last."