It's 'Survivor 2004'

Times Staff Writer

As the past few years of so-called reality programming have shown, you just never know what people will do once they get on TV.

On a recent Wednesday, the day after his press secretary and deputy finance chief quit in protest after the dismissal of his campaign manager, Sen. John Kerry appeared on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" -- or rather, he straddled a Harley and crashed through a makeshift NBC security barrier, breezing past a doughnut-huffing security guard as Jimi Hendrix's 1969 "Ezy Ryder" blared in the background:

"There goes Ezy, Ezy Ryder/ Riding down the highway of desire/ He says the free wind takes him higher/ Tryin' to find his heaven above/ But he's dyin' to be loved/ Dyin' to be loved."

The highway of desire is a tricky road, though. Once widely considered a likely Democratic front-runner but now lagging, the Massachusetts senator was evidently dying to be loved again. (At least the musical selection turned out to be fitting, if not in the way it was intended.) Clearly, the motorcycle stunt was meant to inject some excitement into an identity system that doesn't seem to be tracking with television audiences. But watching the senator chat with Leno while all spiffed up in a denim shirt, jeans and shiny brown leather bomber jacket was sort of sad. Kerry followed Triumph the Insult Comic Dog (a hand-puppet) and Ross the Intern. Even the rubber Rottweiler was appalled at the billing. "The Terminator can take over the show, but John Kerry, a war veteran, has to follow a

Well, for one thing, it's image-crafting season for America's Democratic hopefuls. With just seven weeks to go until the Iowa caucuses, the would-be nominees are flinging all sorts of identity experiments against the wall to see if they'll stick. Considering the candidates' often similar positions on social and foreign-policy issues, this nomination will at least partly come down to whatever mysterious X-factor they manage get across on TV. As candidates pop up in late-night skits, youth-oriented ads and MTV-style debates, the recipe for "presidential" seems increasingly complex.

Those familiar with the conventions of "reality" TV might recognize a certain pattern as this process goes forward. In the real/fake logic of elimination programming, perhaps the most important quality to possess is a singular, standout trait. (The Firebrand, The Insider, The Man of Integrity, and so forth.)

Still, if it came down to singularity, camera appeal and an ability to knock 'em dead, the funny, expansive Rev. Al Sharpton and the articulate, friendly-seeming Carol Moseley-Braun would be further ahead in the game. Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, with his hangdog mug and sad eyes, wouldn't even be in the race. Middle-of-the-road marketability -- Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina looks like he could have been dreamed up in a network focus group -- doesn't seem to cut it, either.

Though Edwards is often described by political reporters as "the cute one," retired Gen. Wesley Clark, with his soulful eyes and coat-rack shoulders, could throw his hat into the selection of the next James Bond (albeit one who's not afraid to get misty for Dan Rather). A seasoned political commentator but a relative newcomer, Clark's mysterious, dark-horse image seemed to give him momentum, at least initially. But Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri -- who's no slouch in terms of brand-recognition -- could founder on his familiar, inside-the-Beltway image.

Is unorthodox good?

And then there's Howard Dean, already famous for being "bad" on TV. Next to Kerry, Dean's televisual persona is spectacularly tense. During debates, his eyelids fly up like rollerblinds with every attack, his jaw clamps shut, his head snaps back, his fingers break into arpeggios on his fidgety knee. Despite this, or maybe because of it, he's the front-runner. Remarkably, Kerry, the master of the bemused head-cock and the indulgent smile, is being clobbered by a guy who can't even force a grin for Larry King.

Mom's prescription for popularity -- just be yourself, dear -- may be working for Dean, but it doesn't work for everyone. Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, for example, projects commitment, sincerity and passion -- but, as pundits consistently point out, he doesn't look the part.

But what is the part, exactly? Who best to go mano a mano with George W. Bush, an incumbent whose televised persona seems to have zipped through every wedge on the image roulette wheel -- from Folksy Everyman to Action Hero to Go-It-Alone Hawk -- before landing on Privileged Insider and Defender of Corporate Interests, at least among those seeking to unseat him. For the Democratic image-crafters, it would seem that projecting a certain type of outsider iconography -- though not too much -- is an asset against Bush.

Maybe that's why Dean's inability to hide his anger seems to be working for him in a mystery-ingredient sort of way. After a particularly coiled early appearance on "Meet the Press," in which Tim Russert questioned whether Dean possessed the temperament to be president, the former Vermont governor's contributions spiked dramatically.

Whether it will take him the distance, Dean's mad-as-hell persona seems to have tapped into a long-forgotten source of apparently renewable energy: insurgent lefty anger. As Al Franken and Michael Moore have shown, there's gold in them thar hills. (Especially on the Internet, which Dean's campaign has correctly identified as the truly grass-roots democratic mass medium of our age.)

For would-be nominees -- especially those who supported the resolution to go to war and are looking for a way to distance themselves from it -- a rock 'n' roll attitude seems like the most expedient way to telegraph a tough-guy stance.

That explains why someone in Kerry's position might feel compelled to transform himself into a Hendrix-loving, hog-riding rebel for the evening.

It also explains why eight out of the nine showed up for the Rock the Vote-CNN debate, during which several admitted having smoked marijuana in their impetuous lefty youth. (Some of the candidates took the opportunity to experiment with wardrobe too; Clark and Kucinich looked like they were stopping by the event on their way to an Allen Ginsberg reading.)

But the rebel pose poses more trouble for some than for others. Gephardt and Lieberman -- who have clocked more on-camera face time over the years than all the others combined -- face the daunting task of reinventing their middle-of-the-road personas into something new and exciting. Lieberman, the anti-Hollywood hopeful, has had an especially tough time of it, so much that the senator has acknowledged his shortcomings in this area. ("I'm not auditioning to be the host of 'Entertainment Tonight,' " he said in an interview on ABC. "I'm asking the American people to trust me to be their president.") An unfortunate choice of metaphoric venue, perhaps, but you can see where he's going with it.

In two campaign spots, gentle Joe is shown sitting in a diner, slapping at his newspaper and saying things like, "Look at this.... It's unbelievable!" Still, the spots manage to be indisputably cranky, and they go with Lieberman's woeful quality and his patented fist-pumping maneuver. In an era of MTV rebellion and Frito-Lay-packaged cool, the decision may come down to a choice between manufactured slickness and oddball authenticity. The Mr. Rogers-is-mad vibe, for instance, works for Joe.

Could angry be the new slick? That's unclear at the moment. After all, even though the pundits already are tilting toward Dean, these are early days for the great masses of voters just starting to react to the televised imagery being spun before their eyes. (Those so inclined can watch at least some of the candidates debate from Des Moines on Monday on MSNBC.)

When Bill Clinton whipped out his saxophone on "The Arsenio Hall Show" in 1992, the gesture came across as a generational challenge. These days, however, the sight of a presidential candidate playing himself in a movie is not particularly comforting. George W. Bush's donning of a flight suit and strutting onto an aircraft carrier has been reviled as a flagrantly misleading photo-op.

Amazingly, Kerry himself had criticized the president's image-makers this year in Vogue, saying, "They have managed [Bush] the same way they managed Ronald Reagan. They send him out to the press for one event a day, they put him in a brown jacket and jeans and get him to move some hay or drive a truck, and all of a sudden he's the Marlboro Man." But as the Motorcycle Man (in a brown jacket and jeans), the senator came across as equally pandering -- though to whom is not exactly clear, unless it was his intention to woo the marketing department at the Gap.

Dean's appearance on "The Tonight Show" in September, by contrast, demonstrated a high degree of image awareness. He came across as a guy the most likely to flunk market-testing -- in a good way. Leno poked fun at Dean's on-screen stiffness by superimposing his clenched head on Pete Townshend's body as the guitarist performed a windmill on his Gibson. He was also shown, in a taped segment, playing the guitar on a street corner, busking for campaign contributions, as Rob Reiner dropped a few coins in his guitar case. "I've watched you in the debates," Leno said later. "Do you have a temper?" Dean lunged forward and slammed his chair, "Certainly not!"

The appearance was funny -- and effective -- precisely because it displayed Dean's canniness about the image he projects and humanized him in the process. Similarly, Wesley Clark's Rock the Vote debate video (in which he earnestly addresses a group of kids in a cafe, saying, "And I don't care what the other candidates say -- I don't think OutKast is really breaking up. Andre 3000 and Big Boi just cut solo records, that's all.") worked because he was in on the joke. The spot, with a wink, cops to the big unstated truth: that grown-ups have to pretend to care about whatever it is kids these days care about to get their vote.

Recently, Walter Cronkite, that astute observer of old-guard presidential image-making, showed an awareness of current TV mores when he told the New York Observer: "We've seen so many people in all walks of life exposed to the camera -- au naturel, without makeup, with many of them in all kinds of postures and circumstance, so that I don't think one needs to be telegenic today." That may be true, but only to a point. What does seem to have changed is what passes for telegenic these days. Blustery passion, an apparent resistance to spin, and a willingness to acknowledge reality appear to be trumping an ability to manipulate one's image.

For now, anyway, it's looking like the pack is chasing the angry rebel Dean.

One thing seems certain: These days, it may take some degree of irony and media meta-awareness to come across as sincere. As Jon Stewart, that astute observer of new-guard presidential image-making, observed on "The Daily Show" the day after Kerry's appearance on Leno, "Senator Kerry, you could take that motorcycle and jump 50 cars with it. That dog won't hunt.... No one's going, 'You know who I'm voting for? Dude with the motorcycle.' "

Carina Chocano, The Times' television critic, can be reached at carina.chocano@latimes.com.

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