For the mushrooming mob of Republican presidential hopefuls—and even the few Democrats in the race—the road to the White House apparently runs through “Slow-Jam The News.”
Strategists for John Ellis “Jeb” Bush clearly believe so—otherwise they wouldn’t have rushed the former Florida governor to Manhattan, the day after his gala formal announcement in Miami, to appear Tuesday night on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and participate in the signature comedy shtick that used to be the stock-in-trade of suspended NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams.
Only three other elected officials have performed in the Fallon staple—President Obama in 2012, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in 2013, and former Republican nominee Mitt Romney in 2014—long after his campaign ended.
So the 62-year-old Bush, who’s anxious to present himself as anything but entitled and dynastic, never mind that his grandfather was a senator and his father and brother are former presidents, gamely sat still for puerile jokes from Fallon and his house band, The Roots, concerning masturbation and genital-size (humor not calculated to win over socially conservative caucus and primary voters in Iowa and South Carolina) while providing a deadpan recitation of some of his campaign themes.
“The week of Jeb’s announcement,” explained Tim Miller, the Bush campaign’s communications director, “we wanted to do media interviews that would be seen by an engaged political audience, but also interviews that would reach a broader, more casual news-watching audience.”
Thus, the same night that the governor spent an hour on Fox News’s Hannity program, attempting to prove his right-wing bona fides, he was a guest on Fallon—not only slow-jamming but also sipping a rum-infused coquito and chatting with the late-night comic about his marital spats in Spanish with his Mexican-born wife Columba, his “spicy” guacamole recipe and his too-strict diet. “I get grumpy and I get hungry,” the candidate confided.
“We wanted to make sure during announcement week that a wide range of people would be introduced to Jeb as person; that’s a big part of what we were trying to do,” Miller told the Daily Beast. “It’s helpful to do lighthearted and fun interviews in addition to the serious policy stuff.”
While it’s always potentially hazardous for a scripted, poll-tested politician to submit to the unfamiliar and sometimes offensive environs of showbiz and satire, recent campaigns have generally decided that the risk-reward calculus is candidate-friendly.
In 2008, Barack Obama and John McCain practically lived on late-night television; both men, along with Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton, have also showed off their comedy chops on Saturday Night Live (the show on which two-term Minnesota Sen. Al Franken was a writer and performer back in the last century).
The media-landscape has come a long way since Bill Clinton’s 1992 appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show, sporting shades and blowing on his saxophone, was considered daring and revolutionary. Yet there’s still reason to be skeptical of the utility of such appearances.
“It’s going to take more than that to make Jeb Bush cool,” scoffed University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato, director of UVa’s Center for Politics, who judged Bush’s appearance on The Tonight Show to have been just “okay.”
“We always exaggerate the effects of things like this, but it’s here today, gone tomorrow; it doesn’t have any long-term effect,” Sabato argued. “Staffs think it does, and candidates think it does. No, it doesn’t. Do you think you can actually shed your Bush baggage because you go on a show with Jimmy Fallon? Really? There are some simpletons out there in the electorate, but there aren’t that many of them.”
Sabato added: “The good news for Bush is that the conservatives who would be offended don’t watch that show. Maybe some of his opponents will make sure that appropriate caucus-goers see it, I don’t know.”
During Bush’s slow-jam segment, the candidate was propped up a stool behind a leering Fallon, trying to keep a straight face as The Roots accompanied him with bedroom-y R&B stylings.
Bush: “I thought long and hard about this decision, and after careful consideration, I determined that now was the right time to launch my campaign for the Republican nomination.”
Fallon: “Ohhhh yeeaaah. The governor thought long and hard about joining the GOP race. After months of being a total caucus-tease, Jeb finally made up his mind and quit beatin’ around the bush.”
The candidate smiled winsomely.
“These campaigns, they all want to win the day,” Sabato said, noting that the media-political complex has accorded critical raves not only to Bush’s Fallon appearance but also to the energy and optics of his announcement event.
“But there are loads of candidates who’ve won many days and have been defeated overwhelmingly on Election Day. It doesn’t mean that much.”
Even so, Republican candidates like Sen. Ted Cruz—a hard-right Texas conservative who is eager to demonstrate that he’s actually a good guy, not the reincarnation of Joe McCarthy—and even Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a grim-visaged socialist who’s polling well against Clinton in neighboring New Hampshire, will likely be trying to make voters smile before this election cycle runs its course.
“Bernie would rather give a speech and talk about issues,” said Sanders campaign manager Tad Devine, “but he understands that people want to get to know him and get a sense of who he is as a person—and he’s willing to do that.”
Devine said his candidate—who recently was a guest on NBC’s Late Night With Seth Meyers, has periodically been a panelist on HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher, and plans to appear again soon with the sharp-tongued standup comic—would likely accept a slow-jam invite.
“It’s an opportunity for a candidate to be a human being, whether it’s Jeb or Hillary or Bernie, and it would certainly to be something to look at and seriously consider,” Devine said. “I don’t think candidates get diminished by going on these shows. It’s part of the rite of passage…I don’t think there’s tremendous risk, showing people you have a sense of humor, as long as you don’t overdo it and make a fool of yourself.”
Meanwhile, a top operative for a rival Republican campaign to Bush’s—who asked not to be named because there’s no percentage, at this early stage, in drawing unnecessary fire from opponents—said only one candidate in the Republican field is “genuinely funny,” but less as a performer than as a human punch line.
“I watched Donald Trump’s announcement speech,” this operative said, “and I couldn’t stop laughing.”