Obama on Leno, Like Clinton on Donahue

John Kennedy's 1960 guest spot on Jack Parr's show is generally regarded as the first time a national politician tried to use an appearance on an entertainment television show to boost his appeal. (James Reston of The New York Times said during the 1960 presidential campaign that there were now two litmus tests for each candidate: “Who can stand up to Nikita Khrushchev. And who can sit
down with Jack Paar.”)And Richard Nixon's awkward "Sock it to me?" moment on Laugh-In in 1968 may be the most enduring example.

They both had the same basic goal that President Obama had in mind when he took a seat on Jay Leno's Tonight Show couch last night.

But the evolution in political messaging that resulted in Obama becoming the first sitting president ever to appear on a late night talk show really kicked into gear in 1992, when Bill Clinton saw a perfect opportunity in late-night and daytime talk shows—previously considered beneath the dignity of a president or a would-be president—to bypass the traditional news media and to showcase his warmth, empathy and other compelling human traits.

Nineteen ninety-two was also that year that Ross Perot, previously a little-known Texas billionaire, used a February appearance on Larry King Live to incite a grass-roots fervor that, by June, had him running in first place in a three-way presidential race with Clinton and George H. W. Bush. The approach had a similar effect on Clinton, who emerged in April '92 from a bloody Democratic primary process, his standing with general-election voters undermined by a string of scandals. Even Democrats believed he wouldn't be electable in the fall. But as the spring wore on and voters began to see him in nontraditional settings, Clinton's numbers began to improve.

Meanwhile, Bush stubbornly resisted making playing the same game; to do so, he believed, would be to lower himself. After Clinton and Perot both appeared (separately) on Phil Donahue’s syndicated daytime show, Bush told reporters that he would reject the program's invitation "because I'm the president." (Clinton also had appeared on Donahue for a one-hour primary debate with his Democratic opponent, Jerry Brown.)

Bush's obstinacy played right into the Clinton and Perot messages, which painted the incumbent president as a tired and walled-off symbol of the old ways. This contrast came to a head in early June, when Clinton appeared on Arsenio Hall's syndicated late-night talk show. Instead of just sitting down and chatting, Clinton first grabbed a saxophone and donned a pair of sunglasses (handed to him by an aide on his way out to the stage) to join Hall's in-house band for a rendition of "Heartbreak Hotel." The image, replayed endlessly on television for days to come, reinforced the hip and vigorous image Clinton was trying to create.

This positive press prompted the White House, finally, to announce that Bush himself had reconsidered and would "probably do the same kind of media as the other candidates," as spokesman Marlin Fitzwater put it. Asked by a reporter if Bush would also go on Arsenio, Fitzwater replied: "'With that exception."

Whoops. This prompted a weeklong war of words between Hall and the White House. On his show the next night, Hall responded directly: ''Excuse me, George Herbert, irregular-heart-beating, read-my-lying-lipping, slipping-in-the-polls, do-nothing, deficit-raising, make-less-money-than-Millie-the-White-House-dog-last-year, Quayle-loving, sushi-puking Bush. I don't remember inviting your ass to my show. I don't need you on my show. My ratings are higher than yours.''

Bush himself refused to return fire, but top Republicans complained to the higher-ups behind Hall's show. Instead of backing down, he upped the ante a few nights later: "I got 'dissed' by the president. At least I'm in good company, though. Now I've joined the ranks of the homeless, the unemployed and the middle class. So I don't feel so bad. . . . Maybe he'll do Donahue, when the topic is 'relatives of people involved in savings and loan scandals'. . . . So I guess that's two houses he won't be in: my house, and come November, he won't be in the White House."

The Bush-Hall showdown ended there, but the damage had been done for the White House. Instead of simply relenting and doing a few talk show appearances, Bush—through Fitzwater—had sparked a media firestorm that reinforced for millions the stubborn old fuddy-duddy image that the Clinton campaign was peddling. Eventually, Bush did appear on a few network morning shows, for "town hall" events. But by then, it didn't matter.