Bill Clinton wore a dark red tie. Bob Dole wore a bright red tie. And that was about as striking as the contrast got last night when the two preening politicos made their debut as a debating team on "60 Minutes."
The setup was similar to "Point/Counterpoint," an old "60 Minutes" feature pitting a liberal against a conservative; the segment was killed years ago by Executive Producer Don Hewitt when it became self-parody. The new version is not called "Point/Counterpoint." It'll be "Clinton & Dole" one week, when Clinton leads off as he did last night, and "Dole & Clinton" on alternate weeks.
Instead of being stuffed at the end of the CBS show where codgerly kibitzer Andy Rooney reigns, Clinton and Dole popped up just past the halfway mark. Each spoke twice, Clinton getting the first word and Dole the last, in a segment that lasted less than 2 1/2 minutes. Sparks did not fly. They didn't even flutter around in the air.
Clinton, his eyes baggy and puffy, began: "Sen. Dole, if there is military action in Iraq, we will probably win quickly because we're stronger, and Iraq is weaker, than in the 1991 Gulf War. But it won't be cheap." Clinton went on to deride President Bush's proposed tax cut, which Clinton said is particularly ill advised during a national crisis. Besides -- Lincoln didn't do it, Clinton said. Nor FDR either.
Then it was Dole's turn. "Mr. President, two of the most dangerous words in the English language are 'either-or,' " he said, arguing that the United States can afford both a war and a tax cut, and isn't that swell? Clinton returned to tell Dole, "You're the one saying 'either-or' " and complaining that the last Republican tax cut favored the people who needed it least. Then Dole returned to wrap it up by proposing that he and Clinton donate their tax cuts to "worthy charities," adding with prunish puckishness, "maybe even the Clinton library."
If it sounds kind of dull, well, it was, except for the novelty of having a former president as one of the participants. Neither Clinton nor Dole was particularly clever or persuasive, however, and the segment was unimaginatively produced. Dole's prowess as a wit was not much in evidence, but maybe he felt using wit against Clinton would be like using a gun against an unarmed man.
Both men had turned themselves into TV performers, mere hired entertainers, but no one could accuse the duo of coming off like Abbott and Costello. No. At best like Abbott and Abbott. It was obvious each man was taped separately. They pretended to be talking to one another, but there was no "two-shot" that showed them in the same frame -- thus in the same place at the same time. Maybe if they had the opportunity to interact the segment would be livelier, but in two minutes and 15 seconds, there really isn't time for that kind of thing.
When Andy Rooney appeared at 7:53, he updated a 1988 commentary he did about one-pound cans of coffee that no longer contain 16 ounces, but as little as 10. That's not really what the segment was about, however. What the segment was about was contained in Rooney's punch line, when he noted that, minus commercials and promos, "the actual content of '60 Minutes' is now 42 minutes."
That was his way of attacking the Clinton-Dole segment, perhaps because it means Rooney's pieces now have to be a few seconds shorter. Making them shorter would, in most cases, only make them better.
As expected, "Saturday Night Live" opened the night before with its own version of a Clinton-Dole match-up, but the "SNL" version was twice the length of the real thing -- a tiring five minutes and 20 seconds, which proved more taxing than Democrats at their worst. Darrell Hammond played Clinton and Dan Aykroyd, one of the show's original performers in 1975, came back for a special appearance as Dole, whom he has played before on the show.
Aykroyd got the biggest laugh of the sketch with a line that's about a quarter-century old. After Clinton's long opening statement, Aykroyd as Dole growled, "Bill, you ignorant slut."
This was a reference to the days in the late '70s when Aykroyd co-anchored SNL's "Weekend Update" segment with Jane Curtin. Their version included a spoof of "Point/Counterpoint" with Curtin spelling out a cogent argument on one side and Aykroyd countering with the low blow, "Jane, you ignorant slut." One week it was "Jane, you magnificently ignorant slut." But the "SNL" version of Clinton-Dole was not much funnier than the real thing. It was poorly written and insufferably wordy.
At least the real Clinton and the real Dole were held to a strict time limit. Their little vaudeville act added nothing to "60 Minutes," but it did the show no real harm, either. Everybody knew that Clinton wouldn't be able to stay away from the TV cameras for very long -- there have even been rumors of his hosting a talk show -- and here he was proving everybody right.
The result was so boring, though, that it ranked as strictly a Pyrrhic victory.