Release Date: December 10, 2002
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Al Gore's upcoming appearance as host on this week's "Saturday Night Live" and his recent forays into talk-TV land are examples of a political strategy that dates back to the days of Teddy Roosevelt, says a University at Buffalo political science professor who studies presidential campaigns.
"Use of popular media over the past 20 years is part of a much larger trend away from the 'reluctant candidate' role adopted throughout the 1800s," explains James E. Campbell, UB professor of political science and author of "The American Campaign."
"In this period, it was regarded as unseemly for a presidential candidate to campaign personally," Campbell continues. "It was not until the 1904 campaign between Teddy Roosevelt and Alton Parker that both presidential candidates 'took to the stump,' ushering in the art of political showmanship that characterizes today's presidential campaign."
"Of course, over time there's been a big change from Teddy Roosevelt's aggressive, but dignified personal campaigning to Clinton's saxophone solos on Arsenio Hall's show and Gore's and John McCain's appearances in 'Saturday Night Live' comedy skits. I can't imagine Roosevelt sinking to this," Campbell adds.
According to Campbell, pop TV shows first became forums for presidential candidates in the 1960s, with Richard Nixon's guest slot on the "Jack Paar Show" and his comic turn on "Laugh In."
"Clinton made the greatest use of talk shows with his shtick on the 'Arsenio Hall Show' and his infamous appearance -- answering a question about his underwear -- on MTV," Campbell says.
As for Gore, Campbell says hosting "Saturday Night Live," is a "no-lose" situation, as were his appearances on a slew of other pop TV shows -- the Larry King, David Letterman and Barbara Walters shows, among them.
"Basically, it's not going to cost Gore much in terms of his image to be a part of skits on "Saturday Night Live." At the very least, he comes out looking like a 'good sport,'" Campbell says.
"He's using these shows to get out on the stage again, to refresh his position as the party's leader," Campbell adds. "Talk shows are a very attractive forum, especially for a liberal Democrat who wants to soften his image. These appearances give him the opportunity to get national exposure without having to answer tough questions."
Campbell predicts that Gore soon will announce his candidacy for president, and is already the Democratic front-runner.
"Despite the loss in 2000 and the disappointment of a lot Democrats in the campaign that Gore ran, I think he's pretty well-positioned to run if he wants to, and the indications are that he will run," Campbell says.
According to Campbell, the fact that the Democrats lost control of the Senate and seats in the House this fall is to Gore's advantage.
"It weakens the position of other possible Democratic nominees, such as Tom Daschle, because they are no longer in the position of being the spokesperson within the party. It takes the platform away from them. And the fact that they were leaders in those chambers when the Democrats sustained their losses doesn't help their position within the party."
If Gore does win the Democratic nomination, Campbell doesn't give him much of a chance against President Bush in 2004, however.
"If Bush is successful in his foreign policy and if economy recovers before the 2004 race, he is going to be unbeatable," Campbell predicts. "The most recent polls indicate that in a head-to-head match, Bush would win easily. Usually I wouldn't give a great deal of weight to polls at this point, but since it's a rematch you have to give them more credibility."
Campbell notes that Gore has used the talk shows to criticize some of Bush's policies -- particularly his threats of war against Iraq. But Campbell cautions that Gore needs to tread lightly when making points against Bush's war on terrorism.
"Gore can't appear to be rooting against American policy," Campbell says. "He must be very careful to not appear disloyal or overly critical of America, as opposed to being critical of Bush's policies in particular."