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Candidate Camera Popularity-starved politicians pump up their mass appeal with TV-show cameos

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- Imagine the damage Rep. Jose Serrano could do if he had an agent.

Character parts? He can play those. Serious drama? No problem. Comedy? Just give him the script. This New York Democrat, who has done just one TV cameo, still thrives on his political job but is simply bored with C-SPAN. He wants prime time.

"To this day, people stop me in the hallways and say, 'Hey man, I saw you on "Law & Order." When are you going back on that show?' " says Serrano. "We who are in Congress think the whole world knows us. But everybody watches the TV shows. They remember them."

These days, "making it" doesn't necessarily mean getting to debate Social Security with Tim Russert, but scoring your 30-second walk- on during prime time.

There's even a new sit-com that relies on cameos by Washington insiders for much of its humor -- "Lateline," premiering tonight on NBC. The pilot, which focuses on a newsroom struggle over the program's anchor, gets comic relief from the likes of gay-rights activist Candace Gingrich and right-winger G. Gordon Liddy, who show up to debate same-sex marriage.

When Serrano heard about all this, he seemed ready to rush the set.

"Ooh! I like the sound of that show," he said. "I hope they put me on!"

Ever since candidate Richard Nixon appeared on "Laugh-In" in 1968, politicians have used entertainment TV to increase their popularity, warm up their images and amuse themselves. But lately, politicians have popped up in more pictures than "Zelig." After all, even a moderately successful prime-time show plays for at least 20 million TV viewers in a single night.

The ranks of the powerful are not fazed by critics who say they are belittling their office by talking earnestly to characters who are actually fake. Instead, they see the cameo as a way to prove they indeed have humor, warmth -- or at the very least, a pulse.

A future episode of "Lateline" has Minority Leader Richard Gephardt trying desperately not to look wooden in a skit with former Labor Secretary Robert Reich. In a plot involving the mistaken report that comedian Buddy Hackett has died, Gephardt and Reich sing "Shapoopee," a number Hackett made famous in "The Music Man." Reich does Hackett's three-legged chicken routine, in between self-deprecating jokes about his height.

Gephardt, a Democrat who may run for president, says he is not afraid of appearing undignified because he doesn't try to be anything other than himself, although he is expecting, "a good round of sarcastic comments from my colleagues after this airs." Still, he thinks the appearance will serve him well, particularly since he can't seem to get recognized as a congressman and is usually mistaken for a weatherman.

"I'm often confused for other people in public places -- I get a lot of Jack Kemp, I'm Dan Quayle, people think I'm a professional golfer, a newscaster, insurance salesman and others," he says. "This might help ... I have a line where I say, 'This will make me.' "

And Reich says his star turn was the perfect diversion for an incurable ham, as he is known to be. And he didn't see it as a great departure from the standard news show with battling pundits.

"Everybody knows that public-affairs programs are really showbiz in disguise," says Reich, who took his own stab at the form in "The Long and The Short of It," a public-affairs show with former Wyoming Republican Sen. Alan Simpson. "Senators and congressmen and others pitted like pitbulls against one another -- that's a circus and that's entertainment."

For some, it is a disturbing trend. Critics say the wall dividing politicians from performers is crumbling. Lawmakers play caricatures of themselves, or act in made-up roles flavored by their personalities, blurring the line where fiction ends and reality begins.

"Our politics are turning into mere spectacle," says Mark Crispin Miller, a New York University media studies professor. "Politicians can pass very easily between fact and fiction, and frequently do. It's almost impossible to find a boundary line."

Politicos are insulted at this suggestion, and say they can better serve their constituents by being more prominent. It just so happens that getting such clout is enhanced by snagging a TV show -- even one with a lot of make-believe.

"It's a sign to people in your district that you're a person other people think is somewhat important and noted," said Rep. Barney Frank, a Democrat from Massachusetts, who is to appear on a future "Lateline" episode. "Actually, it's helpful to do something like this. It can enhance your ability to do something for your district."

Still, not many politicians will be quitting their day jobs. For one thing, many simply just can't get themselves ready for prime time.

Serrano, a Democrat, panicked a couple of times in his role as liberal-leaning Judge Luis Rodriguez on "Law & Order." For one thing, he couldn't get his judge's robe off. He kept stepping on it, sending it riding up his pant leg. Then he flubbed the same line over and over -- stumbling over a word he thinks was "cross-examination." (More than that, he was in foreign territory. One actor thought "Congressman Serrano" was his stage name.)

Serrano called his childhood acting coach for some quick method-acting tips, but other officials get advice from their own colleagues, some of whom came to politics from showbiz.

Ben Jones, a former "Dukes of Hazzard" star and former Georgia congressman, says he was once cornered on a flight to Georgia, in 1994, by his bitter rival -- then-House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich -- who wanted only one thing: Gingrich, sick of his uncuddly image, wanted to learn how to act.

"Newt was picking my mind about appearing in front of the camera," said Jones. "I was giving him acting tips like, 'Think of the camera as your friend. You come from inside. Less is more. Let the cameras do the work.' Actually, he's much better than he was years ago."

Since then, Gingrich has done the CBS sitcom "Murphy Brown." Perhaps such cameos are a right of office -- another House speaker, Tip O'Neill, performed on NBC's "Cheers." More recently, Massachusetts Democrat, Sen. Ted Kennedy played himself on the CBS drama "Chicago Hope." President Clinton did the same on a CBS made-for-TV movie about a terminally ill child.

Political bit players are also going after bit parts -- and unlike elected officials, they can get paid. James Carville and Mary Matalin did cameos this winter on the NBC sitcom "Mad About You." George Stephanopoulos played himself on "Spin City" on ABC, the same network for which he is now a news commentator. Scandal survivors often appear as well: Who could forget Oliver North's performance on the CBS military drama "Jag"? (Maybe everyone, actually.)

But even as audiences titter over cameos -- the latest by Clinton confidant Vernon Jordan as a lawyer in the film "The Gingerbread Man" -- not all Beltway insiders want to be screen stars.

Some Washington notables refuse to play. Attorney General Janet Reno turned down the wacky Fox lawyer show "Ally McBeal" (where she would have been pursued as a love interest) and the ABC sitcom "Dharma and Greg." Instead, actresses are playing her. In Congress, Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., rejected the movie "Dave" and the 1997 remake of "That Darn Cat" (He was in the Senate for the 1965 original, too, although nobody asked him then).

Former Rep. Fred Grandy, R-Iowa, who played Gopher on "The Love Boat," says "doing something stupid like running around the deck of a ship in white shorts" helped create his celebrity status. But he sees reason to be wary of cameos by people who aren't actors.

"When I was just about to leave the House and Sonny Bono was about to come in, somebody asked me, 'Are you worried about actors becoming politicians,' and I said then, 'I think what you have to worry about is politicians becoming actors.'"

Yet Grandy also believes that most are savvy enough to work the medium. "They're lampooning the political establishment -- they're not going to embarrass themselves," he says.

Television producers agree. Image, they say, is everything for these guests.

"I learned the only way you get guests on your show is to make the guests look good," says Al Franken, a "Saturday Night Live" veteran who co-produces and co-stars in "Lateline." "When the guests don't look good, no one wants to do the show."

Indeed, politicians say they are picky about what parts they will accept. Serrano says by playing Judge Rodriguez two years ago on "Law & Order," he was able to offer a good example to Latino kids. Still, when he talks about the experience, he doesn't sound nearly as excited about his job as a role model as he does about the stuff that happened inside his makeup trailer.

"They said, 'Go into that truck for makeup,' and then Sam Waterston comes in and sits next to me. I go, 'Gah! Ooh! Aah! Oh my God. This is real? Where's my father now, God rest his soul.' Then they trim my hair. It's fantastic."

Although his show has been replayed a dozen times, Serrano has yet to be asked back. Still, he is all set to do it again. Like any aspiring actor, Serrano remains hopeful.

"They did tell me once," he says brightly, "sometimes their judges come back."

Pub Date: 3/17/98

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