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Worlds of politics, entertainment continue to collide

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | (KRT) During his week at the United Nations, Secretary of State Colin Powell kept busy discussing Iraq and other problems with a variety of global counterparts: Foreign Ministers Igor Ivanov of Russia, Silvan Shalom of Israel, Ana Palacio of Spain

And talk show host David Letterman of the Ed Sullivan Theater in midtown Manhattan.

During the mostly serious discussion Thursday night, Powell said that American troops might have to stay in Iraq at least another year, and he said he hoped Iraq could write a constitution within six months. He also poked fun at his host when asked about rumors Powell might soon leave the Bush administration.

"How long do you want to do this?" Powell asked Letterman.

Powell's appearance with the gap-toothed comedian reflects the continuing merger of politics and popular entertainment, analysts said. It also gives the Bush administration, struggling with its Iraq policy, a chance to reach a larger and different audience, one that doesn't necessarily read The New York Times or watch the Sunday morning news shows.

"When these guys go on these comedy shows, there's a whole new space created for them," said Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. "If journalism is the fourth estate, comedy is the fifth estate."

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Administration officials noted that, in addition to U.N. meetings, Powell spoke this week with the New York Times' editorial board and PBS talkmeister Charlie Rose, as well as Letterman.

"It's an opportunity to reach as broad an audience as possible," said Tom Casey, a State Department spokesman. "That's part of our mission."

Especially for Powell. While polls reflect rising public criticism of the death toll and financial costs in Iraq, Powell remains the administration's most popular figure.

"Bush is in trouble, and he needs to send out his strongest field general to connect with the public," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center For Politics at the University of Virginia.

During their chat, Letterman asked Powell about reports he may soon leave Bush's team.

"Oh, I'll be secretary of state for as long as I serve at his pleasure," Powell said to chuckles from the audience.

Letterman replied, "I see. And you're still in his pleasure? You haven't incurred his displeasure, have you?"

Powell: "Not so far today. But it's early."

At the end of the interview, Letterman joked, "How much longer do you think California will be a state?"

Powell joked back: "It's hard to tell. I asked my Russian colleague, Foreign Minister Ivanov, if he wanted it back - they owned it at one point. But they said it's too much trouble."

In between, however, Letterman asked hard questions about American deaths, the willingness of countries that opposed the war to help rebuild Iraq, and the possibility that weapons of mass destruction will not be found, as well as the decision by a fellow retired general, Wesley Clark, to seek Bush's job.

Powell said the United States is gradually getting control of Iraq, and he cited Saddam Hussein's past use of chemical weapons. He recused himself on the question of Clark, but he predicted Bush would win re-election next year.

His appearance generated publicity across the media spectrum. Friday's New York Daily News featured a picture of Powell posing with Letterman's other guest, actress Jennifer Garner.

The Sunday morning talk shows are more-traditional stops for officials like Powell, who this weekend will visit ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos" and CNN's "Late Edition" with Wolf Blitzer. But chances are, less people will see him there. With the exception of Tim Russert's show on NBC, the news shows consistently draw fewer viewers than Letterman or Leno.

The late-night shows also draw different kinds of people, analysts said. They cited studies that many viewers - particularly younger ones - get their news from late night comedy monologues.

Bush administration officials said they find talk show appearances helpful, provided they are not made to look like fools. They said Powell was determined to be dignified on the Letterman program as controversy rages over Iraq.

"Powell didn't go out there with a Top 10 list," an administration official said.

Officials also stressed that the "Late Night" appearance was not the primary reason for Powell's visit to the Big Apple.

"If you're Colin Powell, you don't go to New York to do David Letterman," said one administration official. "If you're going to be there for five days, you work it in."

Talk shows - most of which have standing invitations for high-ranking government officials - are only one alternative avenue for presidents to get out their message.

As with previous presidencies, the Bush administration has an office that deals with newspapers and television stations beyond the Beltway. So does the Pentagon, where Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Iraq administrator Paul Bremer have given brief interviews to local television stations.

Bush and first lady Laura Bush are on the cover of the current issue of Ladies Home Journal. And officials said National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice is considering an appearance with daytime talk show champion Oprah Winfrey.

And late-night talk show appearances have been de rigueur on the campaign trail for some time. In 1960, "Tonight Show" host Jack Paar chatted with presidential candidates John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. In 1992, Bill Clinton made a legendary appearance on the Arsenio Hall show, playing "Heartbreak Hotel" on the saxophone - while wearing sunglasses.

As a candidate, Bush did Letterman, Leno, and Oprah in 2000. Attorney General John Ashcroft popped up on Letterman last year, discussing security in the post-Sept. 11 world. He also played piano - the Beatles' "Can't Buy Me Love" - and high-fived bandleader Paul Shaffer.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge went on "The Tonight Show" to discuss the color-coded terrorist-threat alerts. And the night before Powell was there, Lynne Cheney, wife of Vice President Dick Cheney, sat down with Letterman.

These shows often humanize their subjects, analysts said. Bob Dole, often seen as dark and dour when he ran against Clinton in 1996, remade his image on the Letterman show afterward. When Letterman asked him what he had been up to, Dole replied: "Obviously, not enough."

Analysts noted that it's getting harder to tell where politics ends and entertainment begins. On the new HBO show "K Street," husband-and-wife consultants James Carville and Mary Matalin, Democrat and Republican, interact with fictional consultants, and all of them deal with real-life politicians.

But voters are used to seeing politicians on television, whatever the forum, they said.

Thompson, director of Syracuse's Center For the Study of Popular Television, put it this way: "Politics on television is done one sound bite at a time."

___

While politicians and government officials usually weigh in on the Sunday morning talk shows, they love doing the late night gabfests. Not only do they reach a different audience but many more viewers. Following are viewer averages for the 2002-03 broadcast year, which ended Sunday:

LATE NIGHT SHOWS

"The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" (NBC) 5.7 million

"Late Show With David Letterman" (CBS) 3.9 million

SUNDAY MORNING PUBLIC-AFFAIRS SHOWS

"Meet the Press With Tim Russert" (NBC) 4.3 million

"Face the Nation" (CBS) 2.7 million

"This Week With George Stephanopoulos" (ABC) 2.6 million

"Fox News Sunday" (Fox) 1.6 million

_SOURCE: Nielsen Media Research

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