‘Still America’s first family’

Times Staff Writer

Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton don’t have to scramble for national publicity; it flows to them.

On Tuesday and again today, the couple demonstrates the raw power of celebrity, with scheduled appearances on five national television shows just as the Democratic presidential primary race enters its most competitive stage.

In a post-Labor Day blitz, the former president made appearances Tuesday on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show and the “Late Show with David Letterman,” while the New York senator got the warmest of receptions on Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show.


“I don’t know if you know this, but I’m gay,” DeGeneres said.

“What!” said the Democratic front-runner, in mock surprise.

That was a prelude to a more serious question about why Clinton opposes same-sex marriage. She didn’t answer the question directly, saying she favors civil unions with equality of benefits.

She also said she believed that the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gays serving in the military hasn’t worked. That policy was put in place when her husband was in the White House and has, she said, “driven people out of the military.”

Bill Clinton is to appear today on the “Today” show and “Larry King Live.” He is promoting his wife’s candidacy, of course, but also his new book about philanthropy and service, “Giving.”

Not every candidate for president is the darling of TV booking agents, but the appetite for the Clintons remains unabated. There are, for example, the eternal questions about how the marriage works -- an issue that cropped up on DeGeneres’ show, when the two women went to a restaurant and chatted with a couple of patrons.

One asked whether Bill Clinton did any housework. Hillary Clinton said that although they did have some household help, “I’ll come home late at night and he’ll be rearranging the bookshelves or cleaning up the kitchen. He’s pretty handy to have around, actually.”

Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political strategist, said the Clintons were capitalizing on the public’s fascination with them, using their appeal to reach millions of viewers largely on their own terms.

“They are still America’s first family,” he said. “They have lived a kind of serial program that has been on the air, without repeats, for nearly 20 years -- and the American public intends to keep tuning in.”

With a large lead in the national polls, Hillary Rodham Clinton is dictating the terms of her public appearances. Unlike other presidential candidates, she does not typically take questions from reporters when she appears in public.

She may feel she doesn’t need to: As the 48-hour whirl of TV appearances illustrates, she can reach a national audience without having to run the risk of an uncertain answer to an unanticipated question.

And in her husband, she has a trusted surrogate to speak for her.

In his appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” the former president said he would sometimes read his wife’s speeches and offer advice, “particularly if it’s something I know a lot about.”

From time to time, he said, she’ll call him from the campaign trail and say things like, “Do you realize I’m 15 years older than you were when you did this?”

And Clinton said he tells her: “Well, nobody made you run, girl.”

Whether any of this is helping voters make up their minds about her is unclear.

Dan O’Neill and his wife, Mona, came to hear both Clintons address a crowd of union workers and Democrats on Labor Day in Sioux City, Iowa. The Clintons took no questions from the audience or from reporters.

After they finished, O’Neill said he was disappointed that Hillary Clinton said nothing on a subject important to him: free trade and globalization.

“I’ve not heard her speak on it,” said O’Neill, 61, from Jackson, Neb. “And no one will ask her the question.”