Al Gore Learns a TV Lesson … Bill Clinton Does a Reverse Reagan

LOS ANGELES–Well, he couldn’t just go out on stage at the Staples Center, strap on some goggles and smash an ashtray with a hammer, like he did so charmingly on the Late Show with David Letterman in 1993. As Al Gore readied for the television speech of his life–his Thursday, Aug. 17, acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention–he knew he couldn’t rely on any gimmicky props. For the millions watching at home, he would just have to rely on Al Gore.

Uh-oh.

“This is a curious case, Al Gore and television,” said CBS anchorman Dan Rather. “I think however the campaign turns out, he may turn out to be a case study. Whatever you think of him and his policies, he’s smart–I’m not saying he’s brilliant–but he’s a smart guy. But intelligent people with a mission usually become close-enough students of television to become at least reasonably good at it. And the question I don’t have an answer to is why Al Gore, who is an intelligent person, and does have a mission, and does care … why he is not better at it.”

No group of professionals may be more opinionated about the Vice President’s chronically dreadful television performances than people in the television news business. While many agreed he’s not as bad as his worst critics say, name one of Mr. Gore’s TV afflictions, and they were discussing it this week in the newsroom trailers surrounding the Staples Center. He’s too stiff. He’s too flat. He’s too condescending. He’s too talky. He’s too earnest.

“Not a natural,” said CNN political correspondent Bill Schneider.

“Doesn’t turn people on,” said John Seigenthaler of NBC.

“Supercilious,” said Bill Kristol of Fox.

Sam Donaldson offered this directive: “Don’t jump around and shout at me!”

Such criticism is daunting, considering the crucial importance of Mr. Gore’s television performances between now and the November election. “He needs to be more likable, and he also needs to establish how different he is from Bush,” said ABC News political director Mark Halperin. “The way he will try and achieve those twin goals is almost exclusively through television.”

No one’s expecting him to be Bill Clinton, of course. TV news pros have long given up on the prospect of Mr. Gore replicating the telegenic performances of his predecessor. The master unleashed another symphony the night of Aug. 14, delivering a rollicking speech that immediately made the rest of the convention speaker list feel like open-mike night at Chuckle’s. “Nobody in the history of the republic has been as good on TV as Bill Clinton,” said Fox’s Bill O’Reilly. “He makes Kennedy look bad.”

So between now and November, Mr. Gore must get more realistic, the news guys said. First of all, work on the TV appearance. George W. lost his smirk in time for his acceptance speech in Philadelphia; likewise, Mr. Gore must abandon his adopted casual appearance, with the open shirts and khakis with cowboy boots. Stop projecting what Mr. Rather termed a “kind of Eddie Bauer-meets-UPS style.”

“Come dressed in a suit and a tie!” barked Mr. Donaldson.

And then–sincerity. The talking heads working the convention said they can see through some of Mr. Gore’s TV performances as if he were the Kevin Bacon villain in Hollow Man . Don’t be fake down-home, they said. Don’t be fake working class. Just don’t be fake.

Mr. Gore must also keep it simple, the TV newspeople said, something he has struggled with throughout his career, both on TV and off. “I think his dilemma is that he’s studious, and he’s thoughtful, and he likes to deal with complex ideas–and indeed, to be a leader he must deal with complex ideas,” Mr. Rather said. “[But] television does not lend itself to thoughtfulness and complexity, and that presents a real dilemma for him.”

And as Mr. Donaldson noted, there’s also Mr. Gore’s little angry-voice issue. The news pros gave the Vice President high marks for being a pit bull in a television showdown–his verbal disembowelment of Ross Perot on Larry King Live still conjures up memories, and they’ve all but conceded the upcoming debates to him–but that tone must be softened in a Presidential campaign.

“He starts yelling and growling and getting nasty,” Mr. Schneider said. “He does that, and he’s always done that, and sometimes it works, but most of the time it’s just really irritating when he growls.”

“The one thing he must do,” said Mr. Donaldson, “is don’t shout!”

Tonight, live coverage of the Democratic National Convention all day on CNN, Fox News, C-SPAN and MSNBC, as well as prime-time coverage on ABC, CBS and NBC beginning at 10 p.m. Or hey, just watch The West Wing instead. That Martin Sheen is pretty loose on TV. [WNBC, 4, 9 p.m.]

Thursday, Aug. 17

Think they’re going to miss Bubba in this TV town? Here’s what one television executive, who asked to remain nameless, had to say about Mr. Clinton’s convention-week denouement:

“It was very hard for all of us, especially those of us who had some sort of personal relationship with him. But by the way, it’s not really saying goodbye, because I feel like he’s going to be one of us for a long time.”

No, not this rumor again. Bill Clinton, studio prexy?

“It’s certainly possible,” the television executive said. But then he hedged: “Not so literally, as much as he really belongs here. He feels very comfortable in this environment.”

Maybe Bill Clinton, on-screen star, then. “He was a star,” the executive said. “He was a movie star. I have never seen anybody one-on-one, or in front of 2,000 people, who had the kind of charisma Bill Clinton did. Ever, ever, ever–be it movie star or personality. He was phenomenal.”

Maybe that’s it–Mr. Clinton does a reverse Reagan and becomes a movie actor after he leaves the Presidency.

So, does that make Al Gore the presidential equivalent of Shelley Hack, who tried and failed to replace the peerless brunette Kate Jackson on Charlie’s Angels ? No, the executive said, Mr. Gore is going to get his Hollywood close-up, too.

“Gore is still charismatic,” the executive said. “He is still liked by this community. This is a Democratic town. The Lieberman selection, although he has been anti-Hollywood, is still well-received. [There are] a lot of Jews in this community. So I think you are going to still find this town voting 90 percent Democratic.”

Well, let’s see if anyone changes their mind after watching Mr. Gore’s acceptance speech tonight. Coverage of the Democratic National Convention begins at 9 p.m. on ABC, CBS, and NBC. Those looking for more three-dimensional performances are urged to flip to the Flintstones and Scooby-Doo on the Cartoon Network. [CAR, 22, 10 p.m.]

Friday, Aug. 18

Since this is the Hollywood convention, of course, the hottest chair in town this week wasn’t at the Staples Center, but across town at the Tonight Show with Jay Leno . Hillary Clinton made a Tonight Show appearance on Friday, Aug. 11, which was decidedly more relaxed than her robotic bow on the Late Show with David Letterman this winter. Then on Monday, Aug. 12, Gore gals Karenna and Kristin spent time on Mr. Leno’s couch alongside Daily Show comic Jon Stewart, who butted in so many times that Karenna looked like she wanted to grab some goggles herself and smash him with a hammer. Mom Tipper was scheduled to drop by on Wednesday, Aug. 16.

Tonight Show talent coordinator Scott Atwell spent his evening traipsing around the Staples Center with breathtakingly inane Tonight Show correspondent Angela Ramos. Ms. Ramos, who has a laugh that would make Fran Drescher cringe, got kind of famous for going up to Presidential candidates and trying to get hugs from them. Tonight she was dashing around with Mr. Atwell and a camera crew, asking celebrities to eat a piece of cake for a Tonight Show segment for Mr. Clinton’s birthday.

The idea was to have Mr. Clinton in the segment, too. Mr. Atwell said negotiations with the White House were still ongoing, but he was hopeful.

“That’s been quite a task,” he said. “But he is the President of the United States.”

Tonight, Mr. Leno hosts Jennifer Lopez and Sisqó. Now that’s a Presidential ticket. [WNBC, 4, 11:30 p.m.]

Saturday, Aug. 19

West Wing, West Wing, West Wing , blah, blah, blah. A party for the hyper-earnest NBC drama and Clinton administration fetish-porn was one of the hottest invites in town this week, as White House hotshots gathered with their television doppelgangers Sunday for a group hug at the show’s set.

Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala was at the party, and the self-professed West Wing fanatic couldn’t stop gushing later that night when she arrived for a New York delegation jamboree at the Westin Century Plaza.

“It [ The West Wing ] has a moral fiber that other shows don’t,” the former Hunter College president said. “They struggle with the fundamental issues of public policy that most people think are cut-and-dry. And often they are gut-wrenching issues, where you’re actually deciding whether justice will prevail and how people are going to be treated, whether they live in one part of the country or versus another. And they have caught that in a very unusual way.”

Sheesh! Are those Clintonites going to fast-track West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin for the Kennedy Center Honors, or what?

“The way guys talk about the football games on Monday morning, we [White House cabinet and staff] talk about the show,” Ms. Shalala said.

Ms. Shalala did say she had one bone to pick with West Wing , however.

“My only criticism of the show is that they don’t integrate in Cabinet members. They act like the White House staff makes all these major policy decisions when it actually is the Cabinet member and the White House staff working through the issue for the President.”

Yeah, so there! The West Wing is about as realistic as Don Johnson’s police badge on Nash Bridges .

Tonight, a man who admitted to smoking actual dope on the roof of the actual White House, Willie Nelson, hosts a live-by-request show on A&E. [A&E, 16, 9 p.m.]

Sunday, Aug. 20

Sam Donaldson was on the Late Show with David Letterman Aug.11, and he was ranting this week that the Indianan comic has returned to top form.

“David is back!” Mr. Donaldson announced, unleashing one of his signature herky-jerky arm-flails in the Los Angeles Convention Center. “There was that period there, where he was going through some hard times, and I think he would admit he lost the spark and the interest. During that time, I was on his show a couple of times, and I thought he’d lost his spark and interest. But now he’s really back.”

Mr. Donaldson was on the Late Show to plug his new Webcast on ABCNews.com.

The sharp-eyebrowed newsman has become a kind of Crocodile Dundee on the Web–that is to say, a popular misfit–sitting down with the likes of MTV’s Carson Daly and hard-rockers Metallica with the passion he usually reserves for candidates and Cabinet members.

In fact, during his Late Show appearance, Mr. Donaldson kicked it in the green room with Kid Rock! “The Rock and I talked about music,” Mr. Donaldson said. “I learned the names of some of his songs–’American Bad Ass’ and all that. But I did think that ‘Early Morning’ … what’s the middle word?”

Mr. Donaldson asked his assistants to give him the missing third word in the title of the Kid Rock album Early Mornin’ Stoned Pimp . No one knew.

“Well, ‘Early Morning Something Pimp’ was a little too much,” Mr. Donaldson said.

Speaking of early morning stoned pimps, Mr. Donaldson and Cokie Roberts join Georges Will and Stephanopoulos for This Week today at 9 a.m. [WABC, 7, 9 a.m.]

Monday, Aug. 21

John Lithgow touched down at the Staples Center Monday evening for President Clinton’s speech, and the tall-foreheaded thespian had zero clue that a repeat of his show, Third Rock From the Sun , had beat out opening-night coverage of the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia on ABC and CBS.

“Is that true?” Mr. Lithgow said, craning his neck above the crowd meandering in the convention hall. “I had no idea! That just shows how smart NBC is–that’s all.”

Tonight, the smart NBC runs a repeat of the smart crime drama Law & Order to try and slap the smarty-pantsed Dennis Miller and Monday Night Football on ABC. [NBC, 4, 9 p.m.]

Tuesday, Aug. 22

Perhaps the strangest sight in all of Los Angeles this week was the scene outside of CBS News’ skybox inside the Staples Center. Outside the skybox door, network staffers placed a color television with a flashing red light on its top, to warn passersby when CBS News is on the air. The monitor gave a feed of the CBS newscast, but the sound was turned off. Still, every day, dozens of people gathered in the corridor to watch Dan Rather and other assorted personalities silently move their lips as that red, ominous warning light spun round and round.

People really will watch anything on television, won’t they? Well, maybe not everything: Tonight, Fox hosts the Second Annual Teen Choice Awards . [FOX, 5, 8 p.m.]