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Picks and Pans Main: Tube

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STRENGTH. MATURITY. BOLDNESS. COMPASSION. Etcetera. In an election year, such words are invoked in the debate over which candidate comes closest to possessing or (better yet) displaying presidential character. This is the standard gauge, and it is irrelevant. If I could sit down with the candidates, I would ask them: Have you ever watched Touched by an Angel? What do you think was the more likely romance—the Professor and Mary Ann or the Professor and Ginger? Have you ever programmed a VCR, or at least tried to? And, as Barbara Walters would ask in followup, did the frustration make you cry?

Television is a core element of our democratic society. It is only reasonable, then, to expect our President to keep the remote as handy as that whaddayacallit—the atom bomb launcher his aides carry for him. Consider Ronald Reagan. Before a 1983 economic summit, he confessed to his chief of staff that he’d never opened his briefing book the night before. He and Nancy enjoyed a broadcast of The Sound of Music instead. History will not hold this against him. Reagan kept his priorities straight.

In the 1996 race, Bill Clinton, who grew up in a town called Hope watching shows that are now called Nick at Nite, has the edge. At a recent White House conference on children’s programming, he recalled that he used to watch Sesame Street with Chelsea. As classic an American experience as being born in a log cabin! He also confessed that, when he met the leaders of San Marino at the Olympics, he knew their place on the globe, thanks to PBS’s geography-oriented kids’ show Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?

And one can imagine him at home, like any other American, zoning out in front of the television. He sits down on the recliner, not bothering to change out of his jogging shorts. During Seinfeld, he grins at small jokes, guffaws at big ones. The only difference from your viewing experience is that you never have an aide rush in waving the latest Star.

Clinton’s Republican challenger is at a terrible disadvantage. Bob Dole is 73 and his daughter, Robin Dole, 41. Even if they once convened in the rec room to watch Kukla, Fran and Ollie, the image won’t resonate with most voters. Besides, can anyone picture Dole unwinding with the NBC Thursday night lineup? What would that sardonic mind make of Brooke Shields‘s yet-to-start comedy Suddenly Susan? Or, for that matter, the famous-for-being-famous person who is the show’s star? How would he laugh? Not from the gut. Surely, given his own idiosyncratic wit, not in sync with the studio audience.

As for Reform Party candidate Ross Perot, his numerous guest shots on Larry King Live seem like his sole acquaintance with the medium. The man is obviously unelectable.