Government by talk show, and how to beat it

By Lawrence Henry
web posted August 9, 1999

When the Sunday New York Post came out with its screaming headline, "Bill Lied to Protect Me," accompanied by a picture of Hillary, full-page, it should have told Republicans something important. Alas, Republicans have missed the point again, as they missed the point -- however honorably -- during President Clinton's impeachment proceedings.

Here it is: The Clintons don't care about facts. They don't even acknowledge them (except to make sure, by hook or crook, that no ornery fact happens to put one of them in jail). They have perfected governing as a TV show, and it works.

So forget what the polls, even the estimable Zogby, say about Hillary trailing Rudolf Giuliani by 10 points or more. It doesn't matter.

Instead, remember three names: Matt Fong, Lauch Faircloth, and Alfonse D'Amato. (Indeed, you may have trouble remembering them. They all lost in the last election. They were all targeted Clinton enemies.)

Instead, remember President Clinton's persistently high job approval numbers during the worst of the impeachment crisis. Those numbers didn't indicate "job approval." They were, in effect, his Neilsons -- his TV ratings. He soared as a high-flying villain, beset on all sides by snapping, growling enemies. Now that that particular TV show has ended, those "job approval" numbers are dropping once again.

Instead, remember that not one single attack on the Clintons based on facts -- their criminality, their stuporously bad character -- has ever really worked.

The Clintons are a TV show. Just get that, and you've got the whole point. And if you think a TV show can't beat a regular old politician, well, you just don't know, or don't acknowledge, what most Americans spend most of their time doing.

If you condemn the Clintons for their smarminess, their trashiness, their egotism, their bad character, their villainy, their egotism, you're simply reinforcing their TV show's value. ("Please don't throw me in that briar patch!") Indictments just feed their ratings.

(N.B.: I think Kenneth Starr's widely reported "tin ear" for politics was in fact quite acute. I think he could have indicted either Bill or Hillary before the 1996 Presidential election. I think Judge Starr knew that the country would have elected Bill anyway, and that that election would have done even worse damage to the country than it finally did.)

So how do you attack the successful, high-popularity leading actors in the country's leading TV show? TV shows fail when their character's cool runs out. TV shows fail when their leading characters start to look ridiculous. TV shows fail because a competing show fields an even cooler character, and the volatile audience starts to watch somebody different.

That's about it.

Thus the George W. Bush juggernaut. As a competing character, he's showing signs of being able to out-cool Clinton.

Thus the occasional effectiveness (so far) of Rudy Giuliani, who's got the chutzpah to make Hillary look ridiculous.

And thus the greatest hope for Republicans: The Clintons themselves -- with this latest "Talk" shot from Hillary -- may even make themselves look foolish. Hillary, after all, just gelded her husband in public. And her husband is President of the United States.

There is one final piece of good news: Hill and Bill, inevitably, will suck all the gas and most of the money out of Al Gore's bid for the Presidency.

But watch it, Republicans: If you think a TV talk show hostess can't win a Senate seat just because she acts like a TV talk show hostess, you've got your heads on backwards.

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