David Letterman, Jay Leno and other kings of latenight have become routine stops in the presidential race. But the difference in the 2012 race is the willingness of campaigns to take to talkshows in moments of genuine crisis to do damage control.
Herman Cain is scheduled to appear on “Late Show With David Letterman” tonight, the end of a turbulent week for the GOP contender in which a video circulated of a meeting before the board of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in which he appeared flummoxed by a question over Libya. Last week, he went on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” just hours after Sharon Bialek appeared at a press conference with Gloria Allred and accused the Cain of sexually harassing her when he was president of the National Restaurant Assn. Before holding a press conference of his own, Cain sat on Kimmel’s couch and vehemently denied the allegations, chided Allred and, as the comedian suggested that one of his campaign statements now had a double entendre, the candidate laughed along with him.
The day after his infamous brain freeze during a Republican debate, Rick Perry went on “Late Show With David Letterman” to read the Top Ten list, one of a handful of stops as he tried to control the fallout from the flub. (Perry’s No. 6: “You try concentrating with Mitt Romney smiling at you. That is one handsome dude!”)
Ever since Bill Clinton went on “The Arsenio Hall Show” in 1992, talking serious politics as well as playing the sax, latenight has been fair game for candidates, growing not only because it allows them to be seen in a different, more lighthearted environment than the news media, but that it’s even become necessary to reach audiences in an ever-fractured environment.
“Of course, in the years since 1992, there has been a blurring of the lines between news and entertainment, to today where the Republican primary more closely resembles a reality TV show than a political campaign,” said Steve Schmidt, vice chairman of public affairs at Edelman, who was chief strategist in John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.
It is no longer even a novelty that a sitting president would make an in-studio appearance on a late night show. President Obama did so last month, when he was a guest on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” his second appearance since occupying the White House, and he also has done Letterman and “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.”
What is becoming more apparent, however, is that the benefits of exposure for campaigns are being viewed as outweighing the risks, even during moments of crisis management, where once the idea of going on shows devoted to humor and satire would seem to be beneath the dignity of the moment.
Mike Buczkiewicz, segment producer for “Late Show,” said that he had been talking to the Perry campaign for months about an appearance, so it was easier to schedule on such short notice. “Exposure for a candidate, TV wise, is easy to come by,” he said. “If they come on our show and get validation from someone like David Letterman, that is a priceless commodity.” He added that with so many GOP debates this year, going on “Late Show” “pretty much allows them to step away from the pack, and to give the public the chance to learn more from the candidate.”
J.D. Gordon, a spokesman for the Cain campaign, said that the response to the candidate’s appearance on Kimmel was “great,” and he gave no indication that canceling on the show ever entered their thoughts. “That was a day we needed a light-hearted note,” he said.
Cain, who also appeared on “The Tonight Show” on Sept. 30, not only will be doing Letterman but discussions are taking place for appearances on Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Fallon’s latenighters, Gordon said.
The power of late night was perhaps best reflected last cycle, the week of the Lehman Bros. collapse, when Republican presidential nominee John McCain was scheduled to appear on “Late Show” on the same day that he announced that he was suspending his campaign to travel to Washington to deal with the financial crisis. He canceled on Letterman, but his move backfired when the late night host got wind that he was instead doing an interview with Katie Couric. “He doesn’t seem to be racing to the airport, does he?” Letterman observed, only one of many jokes mocking McCain.
Schmidt said there was a big internal debate in the campaign on whether to cancel. Given that the campaign was trying to convey the gravity of the financial crisis, skipping Letterman was the conventional wisdom, but “it was old wisdom,” Schmidt said. “The notion that voters filter the content depending on the type of show it is on is wrong,” he said, adding that with voters getting their information from so many non traditional sources, going on Letterman would have given McCain the chance to explain, without a filter, the context of his decision to suspend his campaign.
He sees earlier examples of politicians trying to do damage control on late night: Four years before he went on Arsenio, Clinton went on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” in the aftermath of a long-winded speech before the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. Rather than shrink from the embarassment — the convention crowded actually applauded when the relatively unknown Arkansas governor signalled that his speech was about to end — Clinton actually boosted his notariety with a light-hearted, self-deprecating interview.Schmidt is not convinced that all of the candidates this year have helped themselves in their late night gigs. Perry’s reading of the Top Ten list, along with his other appearances on the day after the debate flub, gave the news media new footage to show of the candidate, rather than endlessly running the clip of the candidate struggling to come up with the name, “Department of Energy.” “The American people are forgiving of mistakes, and like the audience to appear human at times and self-deprecating,” Schmidt said. But on Kimmel, he believes Cain didn’t come across as empathetic when he made a “snarly” comment about Allred, and perhaps boosted her credibility. The audience also may not have been exposed much to the details of the allegations until they were highlighted in the interview.
Robert Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason U., said he’s not at all surprised by Cain making the talk show circuit.
“It fits in with his unconventional approach,” he said. “He’s certainly writing his own playbook as he goes along.”According to their stats, declared candidates have made 10 appearances on late-night talk shows so far this year.
As much as the campaigns see the talk shows as making their candidates seem more human, there is still the chance that the candidate will be caught off guard with pointed questions from Stewart or searing satire from Stephen Colbert. Letterman’s questioning can make for some serious stumbles.
Letterman once joked that the “road to the White House runs through Dave.” With such an emphasis being placed on late night, Buczkiewicz said, “There is a little bit of truth” to it.