Politicians going on entertainment shows is hardly new, but Vice President Al Gore's appearance on "Late Show With David Letterman" Wednesday took the use of popular culture further than before.
Politicians, classically, have used popular culture programs two ways: First, to repair and humanize their image, as Richard Nixon did playing the piano on the Jack Paar show in 1960 or appearing on "Laugh-In" in 1968, or as Bob Dole recently did appearing with Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show" to tell self-deprecating jokes and demonstrate that he is more than just a mean guy.
Second, politicians have used popular culture to reach out to new audiences, as President Clinton did during the campaign last year, appearing on Arsenio Hall's show and on MTV.
"The important thing about going on MTV was not what he said, but the fact that he was there, reaching out to young people on their channel, welcoming them into the process," Clinton media adviser Mandy Grunwald explained.
Gore's appearance on Letterman's new CBS show was slightly different. He did crack jokes with Letterman about his stiff image and the job of being vice president--even reading his own Top 10 list of good things about the office, including "After they sign a bill, there's a lot of free pens." But the vice president actually wanted to build support for a substantive public policy, his plan for reinventing government.
He demonstrated the government's method of safety-testing an ash tray, or "ash receiver, tobacco (desk type)." Gore and Letterman donned safety goggles and smashed the ash tray with a hammer on a U.S.-mandated maple plank.
"This is a step beyond the talk shows," or playing the saxophone in dark sunglasses, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania.
And that made it risky too.
In effect, the Clinton Administration "has embraced popular culture as part of a general strategy, to use it to get their message out," said Robert Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a research group in Washington that studies TV.
"The danger is you can be used up by popular culture," since the entertainment world does not operate by the same rules as the world of politics and journalism.
Politicians cannot demand equal time. And a politician with real power can look foolish tangling with an entertainer.
Vice President Dan Quayle discovered the risks after he criticized the fictional TV character Murphy Brown for her decision to have a child out of wedlock.
Not only did "Murphy Brown's" producers retaliate with a program that denounced Quayle's ideas in a way that was unadorned and quite serious political rhetoric, but the 1992 Emmy Awards show was converted into a diatribe against Quayle and the Republican Party for its criticism of Hollywood's values.
According to Lichter's Center, which monitors political humor on late-night shows, Leno, Letterman et al. are more focused on politics than ever.
In his first six months in office, Clinton has been the brunt of nearly 400 late-night jokes. George Bush, after six months, had been the brunt of about 60.
Gore, meanwhile, has been the brunt of as many jokes as Quayle was in his first six months as the First Sidekick.
"Let me give you an idea of just how boring our new vice president is," Letterman had said of Gore on an earlier night. "Al Gore's Secret Service code name is Al Gore."