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Amusement, disapproval over Clinton’s new gig

Times Staff Writers

Former Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan and former California Democratic party leader Bill Press usually argue opposite points of view on their midday show on MSNBC. But Thursday they were in agreement: It is a bad idea for President Bill Clinton to join their politician-turned-pundit ranks.

Starting Sunday, CBS News’ “60 Minutes” will feature Clinton squaring off in a “point-counterpoint” format with Bob Dole, former Senate majority leader and Clinton’s Republican opponent in the 1996 election. With a total of one minute each (broken down into 45-second statements, followed by 15-second rebuttals) the two will debate issues of the day of their choosing.

The first topic is whether the nation can afford a tax cut, the one proposed by the current president, when war with Iraq looms. The deal, announced Thursday by CBS, calls for an initial 10 debates, but could be extended if the format succeeds.

“I admire them both,” Press said on MSNBC. “But I do have a problem with a former president taking a paid TV gig. I think he should keep himself on a higher plane.”

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Added Buchanan: “He demeans the presidency; he demeans himself,” by sinking to the level of a local politician.

In Washington, there was less disapproval than amusement and instant political analysis.

These are two spouses, after all, whose powerhouse wives have national cachet, two guys who once shared the limelight in the presidential sweepstakes and now play backseat to the senators who share their names. It’s widely assumed that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) will run for president in 2008. Sen. Elizabeth Hanford Dole (R-N.C.) may as well; she already ran once, in 2000. So CBS’ viewers could be looking at the first matchup of the first two candidates for first husband.

Clinton, asked on CBS’ “Early Show” Thursday about his wife’s reaction, said she admonished him not to lose her any votes. This is Washington code for the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Translation: Don’t embarrass me again. Clinton made clear in interviews yesterday that some topics, such as the potential U.S-led invasion of Iraq, would be largely off limits.

“60 Minutes” executive producer Don Hewitt said he’s unconcerned that the segments, which will run in the middle of the show, will be too tame. “Civility is in short supply in television talk shows,” he said, criticizing pundits such as former Clinton advisor James Carville and talk show host John McLaughlin for screaming on air.

“This is a great opportunity for people to hear two different points of view well spoken on critical issues,” said Washington attorney Robert Barnett, who represented both men in the deal with CBS. “There is all too little of it now.”

In reference to Clinton’s well-known love of expounding on issues, Hewitt said, “I told him it had to be short, to the point, well-focused. You can’t wander on television. He understood.”

Hewitt added, “I probably should get the prize for keeping him to 45 seconds.”

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This is not Clinton’s first significant dealing with “60 Minutes.” In January 1992, with his campaign faltering, the then-candidate and his wife went on the program after allegations of an extramarital affair threatened to knock him out of the race. The interview helped revive the campaign.

Hewitt said he considered “every right-wing Republican in America” to put opposite Clinton, settling on Dole because “they liked each other, they ran against each other for president. [Dole] is an amazing guy, with a marvelous sense of humor.”

The media-politician door has been revolving for some time, with former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura and former House majority leader Dick Armey recently joining MSNBC along with Buchanan and Press. Former Rep. Susan Molinari had a brief stint with CBS. Ex-Clinton advisors George Stephanopoulos, Paul Begala and Carville all have high-profile jobs on television.

But Clinton’s decision to pass through that portal marks a new step. Clinton was reportedly offered $1 million for the “60 Minutes” gig, which will come in handy as he continues to pay off his legal bills, and proceeds with plans for his presidential library. This is in addition to the $100,000 or more per speech he still commands. Clinton said recently that he is making enough money to put some aside for Hillary and daughter Chelsea.

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“Money I could understand, but for Clinton, this is about staying relevant,” said Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Reporter. “Dole doesn’t need to be in the game as much as Clinton does, but this is a guy who does Viagra and Pepsi ads, so he must like it.”

After rejecting ideas for a syndicated talk show, and various other proposals, Clinton, who was approached by Hewitt in August, decided that this format fit the bill in terms of seriousness of purpose.

“There are examples of ex-presidents speaking out,” said Robert Dallek, professor of history at Boston University, whose book, “An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963,” will be out in May. “Jimmy Carter has not held back on a variety of issues. Harry Truman didn’t. Eisenhower was quite supportive of Kennedy and Johnson in terms of foreign policy.... This business of going on television to debate an opponent may be a different way of doing it.”

“The 1st Amendment applies to ex-presidents too,” said Fred I. Greenstein, professor of politics at Princeton University. “Former presidents have often been outspoken. Jimmy Carter went all the way to Stockholm to register his opposition” to President Bush’s foreign policy.

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“Given Clinton’s inability to stay out of the spotlight, it probably is appropriate for him to do anything he can to advertise himself,” added Joan Hoff, a professor of history at Montana State University in Bozeman and former president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency, based in New York. " Unlike other ex-presidents, he has no intention of fading off into the woodwork.”

The “Point/Counterpoint” format was first used on “60 Minutes” in 1971, when Nicholas von Hoffman of the Washington Post squared off against James J. Kilpatrick of the Washington Star. Von Hoffman quit, one “60 Minutes” insider said, when Hewitt wouldn’t run a commentary that referred to President Richard M. Nixon, then still in office and embroiled in Watergate, as a “dead mouse on the kitchen floor” no one was willing to throw out.

It became famous, however, when Von Hoffman’s successor, author Shana Alexander, added her sharp-tongued critiques, and NBC’s Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd on “Saturday Night Live” parodied the duo, most notably with the line, “Jane, you ignorant slut.” The segment ended in 1979.

Hewitt occasionally thought about reviving it, despite a brief, failed attempt to re-create it with Molly Ivins and P.J. O’Rourke. When Hewitt read that Clinton had rejected a talk show, he decided to pay him a visit in his Harlem office to propose joining “60 Minutes.”

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As with the old format, Clinton and Dole won’t face off in person but will tape their commentaries separately. Trading off weeks, one person will pick the topic, fax a 45-second commentary to his opponent, who will respond, then each will come up with a 15-second rebuttal. The name of the segment will be “Clinton/Dole” on the weeks the former president picks the topic and “Dole/Clinton” when the former senator takes the lead.

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Times staff writer Gayle Pollard-Terry contributed to this report.


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