×

The presidential race is still in the early stages — and may the best latenight guest win.

So far, early voting results have favored candidates who appear more loose and comfortable in those casual talk settings, from Iowa caucus winners Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee to New Hampshire victor John McCain — so frequently a guest on “The Daily Show” over the years as to qualify as an unofficial cohost.

This hasn’t sat especially well with some members of the pundit class — highlighted by Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, who caused a scene at an Obama campaign rally, frustrated that the Illinois Democrat is avoiding “tough” interviews, mostly meaning “The O’Reilly Factor.”

Surveying the increasingly shrill cable news environment, however, the latenight couch — once seen as pandering ploy — looks all the more inviting. After the Sunday-morning discussion shows, in fact, entertainment talk might be the most logical place a presidential hopeful can go — especially once those programs get past the writers strike as a public-relations impediment.

If this is the case, cable news has nobody but itself to blame, having allowed too many of its hosts to subscribe to what I’ve labeled the “All about me” school of broadcasting. Beyond O’Reilly — who proudly presented his flare of temper toward an Obama aide on “The Factor” as a triumph for journalistic freedom — the practitioners include such stalwarts as CNN’s Lou Dobbs, who railed against Hillary Clinton for referencing the “hot air” of “commentators” regarding illegal immigration. Never mind that she didn’t name him specifically, the Howard Beale-like host documented the moment with the onscreen headline “Clinton Attacks Lou Dobbs.”

It’s as if everyone in cable has adopted Fox’s promotional slogan, only with caveats: We Report (Often about ourselves), You Decide (If you’re going to fall for it).

At the same time, there’s revived concern about personality dominating the primary coverage, which plays to the strengths of Obama and McCain (a duo New York Times columnist David Brooks recently compared, without emphasizing their shared glibness in entertainment-talk venues) and Huckabee. The former Arkansas governor has not only proven a savvy and quick-witted guest in visits with David Letterman and Jay Leno, but has braved unfriendly territory, appearing on HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher.”

Op-ed columnists are again in a snit about this, with the Los Angeles Times’ token conservative, Jonah Goldberg, complaining that political populism has been bastardized by “the age of ‘Oprah’ and ‘Dr. Phil,’ ” as Americans seek a candidate who “validates them personally.”

Frankly, this is a tired lament, one that’s circulated since Bill Clinton played the saxophone on Arsenio Hall’s show in 1992. Politicians have been accused of sidestepping tough interviews in favor of puffball forums, realizing that Leno and Ellen DeGeneres aren’t exactly Mike Wallace and Tim Russert.

The reality, though, is there aren’t many Wallaces (including the Chris version) or Russerts out there, and the banter with Letterman or Jon Stewart is apt to be smarter than most of what passes for cable discourse, where candidates must jockey for airtime alongside Britney Spears and Anna Nicole Smith’s hard-to-bury ghost. Far from ducking intelligent conversation, as O’Reilly has fumed, politicians gravitating toward latenight are actually finding it.

The eve of the New Hampshire primary provided a demonstration of this, as grass-roots darling Ron Paul snagged 12 minutes of exposure as Leno’s first guest (“The Tonight Show” being semi-starved for big names by the strike), while Huckabee settled for the last seven minutes on Letterman, after two segments with America’s actor in chief, Tom Hanks.

While one could hardly call these interviews a grilling, viewers certainly came away with a better sense of the candidates — Paul’s strict libertarian streak and Huckabee’s genial evangelicalism, which has played surprisingly well on the campaign trail.

The political media might decry candidates gravitating toward entertainment formats, then, but they have only themselves to blame. Cable stars can’t behave boorishly — elevating their own feuds and cult of personality above the news — and expect to be taken seriously when the impulse suits them.

Nor does it help that cable is a live-without-a-net version of the overheated prognosticating that has plagued the race to date, with voters refusing to follow the ever-changing scripts (Hillary up, Hillary down and almost out, Hillary resurgent!) that news outlets keep frantically rewriting for them. Voters have been rejecting “pre-election coronations,” as pollster John Zogby put it, and leaving pundits with enough egg on their face to open an omelet bar.

Compared with that frenetic environment, candidates spending time on the couch have gone from what was easily dismissed as a stunt to a perfectly rational alternative — especially once latenight can get back to its own script.