Published January 14, 2015
On Larry King's show the other night, Laura Bush (search) said that if her husband loses the election, she and the president will be "devastated."
On "Dr. Phil," John Kerry (search) said that as a parent just one spanking of a daughter was all he could bring himself to do.
Politics gets personal on these talk shows — but not too personal.
Television talk shows — "soft shows" some in politics call them — provide a forum for candidates and their wives to display their human side without too many tough questions. The home audiences are plump with swing voters, analysts say, and viewers want a sense of the flesh-and-blood politician that does not come across on the evening news, the convention speech or the debates.
"At this stage, when things are so polarized, they like to go on shows that are unedited, not be confined to a news bite," said media consultant Mandy Grunwald, who helped steer the sax-playing Bill Clinton to the talk circuit in 1992 despite misgivings by campaign traditionalists. "People can see you in fuller form."
Bush is only an occasional and guarded figure on chatty TV this season and Vice President Dick Cheney hasn't been yukking it up either. Mrs. Bush has been making the rounds for the Republicans, though, with two appearances on "The Tonight Show" in the past six months, a coming appearance on "Live with Regis and Kelly," and more. Democratic Sen. Kerry and running mate John Edwards (search) are doing all the top programs — Letterman, Leno, Regis, Dr. Phil and the cable hit "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" among them.
"With Americans split so evenly, the campaigns need to address every possible niche market," said Matthew Felling, media director at the Center for Media and Public Affairs. "That means the hipsters via 'The Daily Show,' the homemakers with Regis."
A secondary motive has been on display this campaign, too.
Beyond the confessional anecdote or the self-deprecating crack, the talk shows have let the guest take shots at the opposition that might come across as unseemly in a speech or news conference.
Edwards, for example, made fun of Bush's past as a college cheerleader, and noted an unsubstantiated Internet rumor that a bulge in the back of Bush's suit coat was a transmission device allowing aides to feed him answers during the first debate.
Reminding Jay Leno he played football in his youth, Edwards said Bush "was on the side, with his pompoms" in those days.
While people learn something about the candidates they may not learn any other way, they generally learn only what the campaigns want them to know. Perish the thought that a relaxed chat with a talk-show host is an anything-goes conversation.
"We knew the jokes were written for the candidates when they went on the late-night shows," Felling said. "We suspect that they've been prepped on what anecdotes to volunteer. There is nothing spontaneous in the 21st century election."
One result: lots of stories about attentive fathers who carpooled, changed diapers and never missed a kid's game.
Bush told "Dr. Phil" host Phil McGraw he hopes a daughter will marry an angler, so he can go fishing with a son-in-law.
Some insights do get through.
Mrs. Bush contradicted herself, but in a way that anyone who has been torn about anything would understand, when asked how she would feel if her husband lost the election. "I fully believe he will win," she told King. "But if he doesn't, we'll be perfectly all right. But we'll be devastated. I'll be devastated, of course. But, you know, but we'll be fine."
Kerry volunteered to Stewart how awkward it has become to use a public bathroom.
"You'd be amazed the number of people who want to introduce themselves to you in the men's room," he said. "It's the most bizarre part of this entire campaign."
Teresa Heinz Kerry, whose impulse to speak her mind has been only occasionally suppressed, joined her husband on "Dr. Phil," telling McGraw of the challenges blending their families after entering what was a second marriage for both.
She also talked about miscarriages during her marriage to the late Sen. John Heinz and how she refers to daughters as 'pinkies.'
"I have several pinkies in heaven," she said.
Kerry recalled drawing a diagram for his elementary-school daughter years ago when she asked him about the birds and the bees. "She got so terrified, she ran out in tears," he said.
And he talked about surviving homesickness as a child, seldom seeing his parents and being sent to seven schools in nine years. "Yeah. Well, I'll tell you ... after three weeks, I was, you know, crying and homesick. I mean, I just wasn't happy."
These shows don't rival the debates or the national convention speeches for audience size, but they do reach millions, easily outpacing the exposure from a stump speech.
"Dr. Phil" attracts nearly 7 million viewers; "Live With Regis and Kelly" draws 4 million viewers a day. In the season that concluded in late September, "Tonight" averaged 5.8 million daily viewers, David Letterman's "Late Show" on CBS averaged 4.2 million