Jokers have last laugh on Dole

The US presidential candidates are a rich source of humour for TV show hosts, writes John Carlin

Washington - Bill Clinton and Bob Dole will soon be unveiling their television advertisements for this year's pres- idential elections but, try as each may to portray himself in a solemn light, they will battle to overcome the caricature perceptions fixed in the voters' minds by the jokes on America's popular late-night television shows.

Hardly a night goes by without David Letterman, Jay Leno or Conan O'Brien - television hosts who enjoy almost as much name recognition as the two candidates - venturing a wisecrack about Mr Clinton or Mr Dole. Clinton jokes depict the President as a womaniser, or a junk food glutton, or both. Dole jokes present the challenger, who turned 73 on Monday, as testy, wooden and ancient.

"A Swiss company has announced that it is now making 100 per cent safe breast implants made from vegetable oil," began Leno of NBC. "That is going to take a lot of will-power for Clinton to pass up, don't you think? I mean, a woman with large breasts who smells like a French fry?"

Leno managed there to wrap the Clinton stereotypes into one. Letterman - Leno's rival on CBS - hit upon a clumsier formula to do the same to Mr Dole. Included in Letterman's list of the "Top Ten Highlights" of Mr Dole's recent appearance on CNN's Larry King Live were: "Bob pulled out his teeth and made them chatter on Larry's desk"; "Bob kept snapping Larry's suspenders and barking, 'Stay awake, punk!'"; "While attempting to smile. Bob sprained his face."

Funny or not, there is no doubting the impact television humour will have on an election whose outcome, given the candidates' failure so far to demarcate clear positions on the issues, is expected to depend on the "character" question. According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 25 per cent of American adults, and 40 per cent of those under 30, said that television humour would influence their electoral choices.

So far Mr Clinton is way ahead of Mr Dole in the opinion polls. A poll published yesterday by USA Today merely confirmed the findings of three polls last week, that Mr Clinton is a clear 20 percentage points ahead. In terms of the humour index, this would suggest that the people polled are more comfortable with the idea of a likeable young bounder in the White House than with a venerable old bumbler.

Also acting against Mr Dole - and this may change as the campaign wears on - is the fact that most of the Clinton jokes have been done before, whereas, the Kansas senator being newer on the presidential scene, Dole jokes provide a richer vein for the humorists to tap.

Worst of all for Mr Dole, in a country where winning is everything and voters do not like to be associated with a loser, more and more jokes are beginning to appear that make fun of his plummeting ratings.

Mr Clinton is laughing now. But the tide may turn, especially if more White House scandals emerge of the type that prompted this Letterman joke in his "top ten surprises in the O J Simpson video": "Number five: the revelation that the gloves are Hillary's size."

Whatever new directions the television jokes take, one thing for sure is that they will continue to proliferate all the way up to polling day on 5 November. They are likely to have at least as much influence as the state of the economy and US foreign relations in determining who will lead the world's most powerful nation into the next century.

I say, I say ...

Letterman, CBS: "A Japanese inventor has developed a robot that can simulate five human facial expressions. Now, I know you're saying to yourself, 'that's three more than Bob Dole can make'."

Conan O'Brien, NBC: "I don't know how we got hold of this ... written by the psychiatrist who treats Bob Dole. Take a look at this note. It says, 'Earliest childhood memory: father carried away by pterodactyl'."

Letterman: "Steve Forbes, the wacky billionaire, finished second, and he said, 'Well, the problem is I just could not compete with the Bob Dole machine'. And I'm thinking, what is that? Respirator or dialysis?"

Letterman, again, on Mr Dole's Larry King performance: "The show was apparently a huge success. Everything went great for him. It was so successful, in fact, Dole only dropped eight points in the polls."

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