As the new season of Saturday Night Live gets under way on Oct. 4, Darrell Hammond-the show’s chief political impersonator, once Bill Clinton and, at this year’s Emmy Awards, the squinty-eyed Donald Rumsfeld-can’t wait to contort himself into the likeness of former Vermont Governor Howard Dean.
“I’m sitting there with writers, saying, ‘ Please give me this assignment so I can do this.’ I hope I can get into Dean, because he’s so bloody-he’s so himself ,” he said. “What’s so interesting about Dean is he appears to be an impassioned man and says, ‘Damn the theatrics of the whole thing, I’ve got something to say to you.’ It seems like he was compelled to come here and do a job.”
He said inhabiting Dr. Dean-a character that producer Lorne Michaels has not yet assigned-wouldn’t be a far cry from doing President George W. Bush. Like Mr. Bush, he said, “sometimes he switches sentences in midstream. He sputters and sometimes he seems too angry-he seems like a person . That’s something that’s been successful.”
What was true in the 2000 election appears to be true today: Having a shaky, hand-held, what’s-he-going-to-say-next? quality on TV is a plus. Mr. Bush, even with his linguistic impediments and squinty, timorous concentration on the teleprompter, exuded something ineffably believable that Al Gore simply did not-a certain telegenic quality, if not-in the case of Dr. Dean’s K Street appearance-a kind of telegeni-cynicism. And while the current lineup of Democratic contenders adopt the contours of their TV personas on Sunday-morning talk shows and in buzzer-happy Jeopardy debates like the one at Pace University on Sept. 25., they appear, all 10 of them, fascinatingly bad. But in a few cases, so bad it works.
Those in the business of making TV are observing in Dr. Dean’s success the rise of what might be called the New Telegenic, a kind of warts-and-all reality-show “real” that has little to do with the buffed, Hollywood telegenic quality that sent Ronald Reagan into the history books.
Case in point: The tallest, toothiest, most-handsome, hangdog-sexy, most–Mel Gibsonian made-for-TV candidate can’t seem to get any traction in the polls.
“If you’re looking for a guy who can star in a movie as President,” said Don Hewitt, the executive producer of 60 Minutes who produced the first 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debate, “John Kerry is the most telegenic, and he doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. America is smart enough to discern showbiz from reality.”
How political substance and telegenic charisma will combine to deliver a formidable Democratic candidate is no longer clear. Ever since 1960, when a navy-suited, tanned John F. Kennedy stood across from an underweight, gray-suited Richard M. Nixon mopping Lazy Shave and sweat on national television, it showed that a certain on-air flair has helped win elections. President Reagan was the embodiment of the rule, and so was Bill Clinton. But Mr. Gore-starting with his weird carrot-tinged makeup in the first debate-tried to reinvent himself from debate to debate, and broke up in the atmosphere as this new kind of reality-show reality unfolded. In 1960, John F. Kennedy was smart-cool; in 2000, George W. Bush established a new winning formula: dumb-cool.
It’s little wonder why friends of NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw thought he had the right stuff to run for President in June of this year. The man just looked cool on TV, no matter his politics. But Mr. Brokaw knew that a well-burnished image could be crumpled up like tin foil with a single sound bite, like General Wesley Clark’s assertion Saturday that he believed in … time travel! (So, by the way, do we, but we’re not doing New Hampshire.) “The only thing I’m running for is cover,” Mr. Brokaw kept saying.
“We’ve seen so many people in all walks of life exposed to the camera,” observed Walter Cronkite, the former CBS anchor, who has been asked to run for office numerous times over the years, ” au naturel , without makeup, with many of them in all kinds of postures and circumstance, so that I don’t think one needs to be telegenic today. I think people are inclined to listen to what they say rather than talking about what they look like. We’ve seen them with their hair mussed up, or no hair at all-I just don’t think it’s a major issue with people these days.”
As Mr. Hammond said of the Kennedy-esque rhythms that so many politicians had been trained to ape in their vocal delivery over the years, “That’s grand and wonderful theater in another time in history.”
Still, Mr. Hewitt, a man who has gripped hands with every U.S. President since Eisenhower-and put many of them in front of a camera for CBS-said he saw a certain telegenic flair in General Clark. “So far, I think he would hold up better than anybody else,” he said.
Many TV executives with whom The Observer spoke agreed. Sure, no one yet knew where Mr. Clark stood on issues-except the time-space continuum-but so what? He has an authentic presence. As one network news executive observed:
“This is why Wes Clark jumped right to the front-he’s cute, telegenic, smart, a good talker. The bio helps, of course, but the truth is that Kerry, Lieberman, Edwards and the rest all come off as either stiffs or actors …. You want to have a beer with Wes Clark, like you do with George W. and like you did with Bill Clinton.”
Mr. Hammond said Gen. Clark could transform himself quickly, especially if he could do what Dr. Dean does: “If he would get a little passionate, and show a little redness around the eyes when he speaks, stammer in anger, he would just be devastating ,” he said.
But what about the rest of the pack?
“There’s two kinds of people on TV,” said Steve Friedman, the former executive producer of NBC’s Today Show and CBS’ Early Show . “Those who get smaller, and those who get bigger.” Most, said Mr. Friedman, are doing the former. Senator Joseph Lieberman, said Mr. Friedman, “doesn’t jump out at you on the screen. With 10 people and counting, television’s a tough road for him.”
Congressman Richard Gephardt also seemed to shrink on a crowded screen. Having appeared on Meet the Press 40 times since 1983-more than anyone but Bob Dole-Mr. Gephardt is challenged to transform his shopworn talking head into something believable and compelling. On Sept. 25, at Pace University, he was coifed, confident and well-spoken, but he was also typical, a little bit Ford Taurus next to Mr. Kerry’s Range Rover and Dr. Dean’s Subaru Outback. Rep. Gephardt tried to break out of it by attacking Dr. Dean, but it backfired.
“Gephardt has this business of pointing the finger to make a point,” observed Mr. Cronkite, “which is a form of emphasis that probably impresses some people and may offend others.”
When Mr. Gephardt tried his angry Gephardt routine, tying Dr. Dean to Newt Gingrich, Dr. Dean transformed: His bottom row of teeth started to extrude, he looked down at his papers, fuming, fur tufts practically sprouting on his hands. When he gave his retort-”Nobody up here should be com-com-compared to Newt Gingrich!”-he stumbled over the sentence. But it still stuck out as one of the freshest moments in the debate. This guy is the freshest madman since Richard Widmark.
“As a comic on stage,” said Mr. Hammond, “when I speak the most honestly and most revealing, its always the most powerful. So what’s most personal is most general. The theatrical possibilities are greater.” He said he would call Dr. Dean “a coiled spring. People can’t take their eyes off him.”
“I do think one of the keys to success in selling anything on television is honesty and sincerity,” said Mr. Cronkite, “and being one’s self. If you try and invent a personality that you think will be successful, you’re immediately dealing with a form of subterfuge.”
Which is exactly why Senator Kerry may be challenged as a candidate. The mannerisms of the professional politician are now sniffed out by audiences as inherently false. “He has the look, the feel, the voice, he’s good-looking, but for some reason he isn’t connecting,” said Mr. Friedman. “He should be the commanding figure on the stage, and he isn’t. And when he doesn’t become that, he sort of shrinks.”
The rest of the pack seem to toggle between New Telegenic and Old Telegenic. While each grabs spontaneous moments with one-liners-like the one James Carville scripted for Dr. Dean-or an impassioned flush in their cheeks, they seem to spend most of their time fighting to increase their quarter-inch of TV screen. Senator John Edwards is the young, handsome Southern politician in the mold of Bill Clinton, and yet, said Mr. Hewitt, “He looks like the handsome second lead in a movie.” Yes, that’s right: James Spader. Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, said Mr. Hewitt, “doesn’t look like a President. There’s something to be said for looking like a President.” Florida Senator Bob Graham was affable and earnest-and nearly invisible. Time for a handlebar mustache, Senator! And Carol Moseley Braun, an ambassador to New Zealand with almost no hope of getting elected, was exceedingly telegenic during the Sept. 25 debate, mainly because she had nothing to lose. She’s a Disney TV movie, waiting to happen.
And, said Mr. Hewitt, “you know who’s the most telegenic of them all?” said Mr. Hewitt. “Al Sharpton! He’s a comedian.”
Which means he might succeed where former President Bill Clinton couldn’t: on 60 Minutes . With Tom McClintock taking over for Bob Dole.