Jewish World Review Feb. 14, 2003 / 12 Adar I, 5763

Michael Medved

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Consumer Reports

The reality TV president? | If Ronald Reagan established himself as the Great Communicator and Bill Clinton connected with the public as the Great Empathizer, then how should we identify George W. Bush?

His admirers might argue that the president has earned the title of the Great Clarifier, for his consistent characterization of the war against terrorism (and potential war against Iraq) as a classic case of good vs. evil, or his tireless discussion of tax cuts as a straightforward matter of people getting to keep more of their own money.

Bush critics insist that the president more properly deserves designation as the Great Simplifier for impatiently reducing even the most complex issues to childish, black-and-white, us-and-them elements. He talked, for instance, of wanting Osama bin Laden "dead or alive" and suggested that Saddam Hussein must go because he "tried to kill my dad."

As a matter of fact, Bush bashers may once again "mis-underestimate" the commander in chief, whose reductionistic tendencies connect him to the hottest media fad of the moment: reality TV.

These entertainments invite snap judgments based on a few moments of tape, as viewers classify contestants as nice or mean, earnest or conniving. Such shows create a false sense of intimacy and immediacy, in which successful competitors come across as earthy, unassuming and natural, despite the cameras constantly trained on them.

The winners in programs such as Survivor don't tend to be the smartest or most aggressive members of the tribe; they are, rather, the ones who manage to get along, assemble a winning team and charm their colleagues in the midst of high-stakes rivalry.

Bush fits this mold perfectly. As the Ivy League-educated son of a former president, he's obviously no regular Joe ("Millionaire") - just as reality-show contestants, many of them aspiring actors and models, don't really qualify as the "everyday people" they pretend to be. Nevertheless, the public appreciates efforts to de-emphasize glamour and pomposity. Bush's aw-shucks, drawling, self-deprecating good nature works powerfully to his advantage.

The documentary Journeys With George, produced by Alexandra Pelosi, daughter of the House Democratic leader, follows the ups and downs of the Bush presidential campaign, highlighting the candidate's goofy, mischievous sense of humor. Above all, we see a guy who never takes himself too seriously - just as reality shows offer a knowing wink (as with the production company that designates itself "Rocket Science Laboratories") to let us know that their creators recognize the essential silliness of their enterprises.

Like any popular contestant on a reality show, Bush conveys the sense of an ordinary guy suddenly forced into unnatural, extraordinary circumstances - particularly after 9/11. His durable popularity rests on the fact that he hasn't puffed himself up as the great anything. In the spirit of populist television, he understands that the public wants likability more than lordliness, the feeling of a decent, reliable fellow from next door rather than a superhuman candidate for Rushmore. He's the Good Neighbor President, and in this age of increasingly bizarre reality shows (and world events), his handlers hope that this will prevent the bemused public from voting him off the island.

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JWR contributor, author and film critic Michael Medved hosts a daily three-hour radio talk show broadcast in more than 120 cities throughout the United States. His latest book, written together with his wife, is Saving Childhood : Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence . You may contact him by clicking here.

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