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On MTV, Candidates Are Spieling Like Kids Again

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 26, 2000; Page C01

MTV's expertise with the nanosecond attention span makes it uniquely suited to gauging the amount of time that should be devoted to the men running for president. In its one-hour special "Where Were You at 22?," MTV interviews several of the candidates about their youth. And Lord love MTV for not allowing them to drone on about their political records or what they can do for this great country of ours. Instead, amid the quick cuts and succinct quotes, the show manages to draw out a hint of the personalities behind the carefully constructed facades.

The program, which airs at 10 tonight and is the first in a series of "Choose or Lose 2000" news specials, reveals nothing about the candidates' stance on current policy issues. And it's far too short and superficial to provide any real insight into the psyches of these complicated men. Instead, "Where Were You at 22?" is a humanizing poultice. It helps one answer the questions: Which one would you like as a dinner companion? Which would you be willing to do a favor for? And those answers, in turn, say a lot about the person you would be willing to vote for as president.

All of the leading candidates submit to past-life (as in pre-politics) interviews except George W. Bush. In whose case a cousin and a friend are dispatched to gamely expound on the Texas governor's youthful wanderlust and offer such 10-cent pronouncements as "George W. is a natural politician." The result is that Bush is the only candidate who comes across like he's got a closet bursting with frat house skeletons and pop psychology "issues." And all of his often-mentioned political charisma plays out like hubris.

Of the ones who talk, Al Gore and John McCain come across as the most at ease with who they are and how they came to be. Sen. McCain is portrayed as a once-upon-a-time young punk with poor grades, an intimidating family legacy in the Navy and a taste for adventure. The show moves swiftly through his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam and is most effective when the Arizona Republican describes his long-awaited return home. Against a backdrop of television footage showing him limping across the tarmac, McCain describes his father revealing how proud he was of his son. There are no tears, just the suggestion of them, as McCain's answers become clipped and he flashes a tight smile as a defense against weeping.

In addition, McCain admits to a temper, but in the context of rough-edged MTV that's not so much political liability as it is flash of normalcy.

The vice president's best moments--aside from looking stunningly like G.I. Joe as he heads off to Vietnam--come during an exchange about drug use. When the interviewer asks Gore whether he chose to smoke pot in his youth, Gore replies, "Well, I don't think anyone made you smoke." He is blunt; he is honest; he is loose. There, if only for a few seconds, is a picture of the relaxed, private Gore that friends describe. It also doesn't hurt that Gore has former college roommate Tommy Lee Jones quietly praising him. Actors, after all, know how to deliver a line with power.

There also are revealing moments in the segment on Pat Buchanan, in which the conservative commentator is portrayed as a young thug whose father insisted he learn to box for self-defense. Buchanan tells a well-known anecdote about being stopped by the police for speeding. He gave the cops grief, putting his pugilistic skills to use until one of the officers pulled out his nightstick. Buchanan--at the time a white, middle-class student at Georgetown--chuckles at the memory and describes himself as the "Rodney King of the '50s."

The segment on Bill Bradley is the least intriguing, in part because it rehashes much of the common lore about the former senator and New York Knick. From shots of him on the basketball court to the black-and-white images of him at Oxford, his story feels stale. Where was Bradley at 22? He was being interviewed by one sports writer after another, his youth minutely chronicled in magazines and film.

And then there is Steve Forbes. He is the only candidate interviewed who surrounds himself with his family. The millionaire publisher's wife and daughters sit there, smiling up at him as if posing for a holiday card. They never speak; they are like animatronic props offering silent adoration.

Forbes says that although he was raised amid great wealth, he was not privileged. He notes that he received an allowance and that, by God, he had to work for it. As a kid Forbes named his stuffed animals after former presidents. In college he launched a successful business magazine at Princeton University. He describes himself as having avoided the political and cultural protests of the '60s. They just baffled him, he says.

Then the camera zooms in on still photos of him as a young man, with close-cropped hair and that same stunned-deer gaze. And instead of bestowing Forbes with an air of cool, with just a hint of smooth charisma, the lens reveals only this: Rich geek boy becomes rich geek man.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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