One by one, the talk show legends are signing off. Whether you’re a devotee of daytime ( Regis) or nighttime ( Larry), this has been a season of loss. And God help America when our high priestess of chit chat, Oprah, wraps her long-running weep-fest later this year. After 25 seasons, it remains to be seen whether we as a society can still experience an emotional catharsis—much less buy a book—without Ms. Winfrey’s gentle guidance.
With so many good-byes on the wind, how tantalizing it was to read the excerpts from Roger Ailes’ extensive, acid-trippy interview with Esquire, in which the Fox News chief and conservative bogeyman shared that he had approached none other than Bill Clinton about the possibility of a talk show. Bill Clinton! The heart pounds and the mind reels at the thought of one of politics’ great talkers—scratch that: one of the great talkers period—joining forces with one of the most diabolically gifted television minds of our time to create a hi-def, cross-platform, multimedia gabfest extravaganza the likes of which the world has never seen. Move over, Dr. Phil: America’s Big Daddy is in the house!
Alas, it was not meant to be. As Ailes tells it, our smooth-talking former president isn’t as suited for the hosting chair as you might think. For starters—and this will not surprise anyone old enough to recall the oratorical Hindenburg that was Clinton’s speech to the 1988 Democratic National Convention—the guy just won’t shut up. Yak. Yak. Yak. Yak. Yak. Forget letting guests get in a word or two. Clinton risks blowing through all of his time cues, straight past commercial breaks and on into the next program. Chat shows may look like easy, breezy conversations among interesting friends—or, in the case of political debate shows, like unsupervised knife fights among freshly paroled gang leaders. In reality, they are strictly orchestrated marches through blocks of airtime precisely laid out between commercial breaks. No one screws with the clock. Not even Letterman.
Political heat sells. Statesmanship, not so much.
Worse yet, observes Ailes, our 42nd president remains a hopeless a policy wonk, the more complex and arcane the issue the better. If you think advertisers get twitchy when people start musing about kiddie porn on MTV, imagine their screams of terror at the specter of a chat show host prone to rambling on for 10, 15, 20 minutes about the finer points of closing corporate tax loopholes or rationalizing the Medicare reimbursement formula for doctors. You might find such a show gripping. I might find it gripping. Heck, all told, there might be a couple hundred current and past employees of the Congressional Budget Office who’d find it gripping. And without question, many Americans would regard it as worthy. That said, there is a technical term for this kind of worthy programming, and that term is canceled.
But while the Fox News chief clearly has Clinton’s particular shortcomings pegged, I can’t help but wonder if the larger concept isn’t fundamentally flawed. Specifically, the nature of modern media—which rewards flash and trash and conflict above all—suggests that the best TV hosts wouldn’t be formerly successful politicians so much as ones who were half-hearted or half-assed to begin with.
Think about it: Successful big-time ex-pols like Clinton tend to worry too much about their policy record or their Legacy or other half-serious matters connected with their reputation or that of their party. Political B-listers, by contrast, enjoy the cachet of possessing inside-the-game insights without the burden of striving to maintain some vestige of being a serious statesman. Exhibit A: Former Arkansas governor and failed presidential candidate Mike Huckabee in his goofy, say-whatever-he likes-and-occasionally-jam-out-with-the-band radio and TV host persona. Many speculate that Huckabee will make another go of it in 2012, but I just can’t see it happening because, gosh darn it, Mike is clearly having the time of his life these days. Another run would change everything—and not in a good way.
Or how about “Morning Joe” Scarborough? As congressional tenures go, Scarborough’s six-and-change years representing Florida’s first district were wholly unremarkable. Unleashed from public life, however, Joe seems to have found his groove as MSNBC’s saucy, moderately sexist smart-mouth token conservative. Like Huckabee, Joe has mused about seeking a return to higher office, especially riding high as self-designated scold of his party’s more extreme elements. Morning Joe fans should hope not. Because if Scarborough starts to get serious about his electability again, you can expect the show to take a sharp turn toward Dullsville.
As for counterexamples, who better than the Queen of the Mama Grizzlies, Sarah Palin? With her mind-blowing charisma and sassy, good o’l gal folksiness, you’d think the conservative bomb-thrower would be a TV natural. Maybe even the next Oprah! Instead, despite we the media’s desperate obsession with her, Palin is a terrible media interview. She is too timid, too anxious, too visibly freaked out about straying from the comfort zone of three or four talking points she brings to every sit-down. (No. 1: It’s not my fault. No. 2: It’s the media’s fault.) Whether or not Palin is planning to run for the White House in 2012, she is obviously worried about maintaining a particular political image among her fans, and so rarely cuts loose and says anything fresh on air. The result: canned, snoozy, awkward appearances even when she’s sharing the screen with friendly fellow Foxies like Glenn Beck or Sean Hannity.
Going farther back, who out there remembers 60 Minutes’ disastrous attempt to generate buzz by bringing back their point-counterpoint segment featuring Bill Clinton and Bob Dole? Don’t feel bad. Neither does anyone else. Panned as too gentlemanly, the Clinton/Dole exchanges were such a snooze that the show’s producers canned them after the initial 10-installment run. Political heat sells. Statesmanship, not so much.
Obviously, former pols with less to lose are going to be freer to mix it up on the telly. CNN was presumably thinking along these lines when it tapped disgraced New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer to co-host a prime time show opposite Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker. I mean, after you’ve been forced from office for cavorting with hookers, is there really any point in pulling your punches? Unfortunately, if the ratings are any indication, in this, as in so many things, CNN seems once again to have missed the mark. Apparently, there are still some politicians out there who are too pathetic even for TV.
Michelle Cottle is a Washington reporter for The Daily Beast.