How Oprah could swing the election

I watched the second of the presidential debates with a friend and Bushie of impeccable credentials: a man who not only worked as President George Bush's perhaps closest aide and confidant for 12 years, but who is also an old friend of Boy George. He left my house cock-a-hoop. "We've definitely won now," was his parting shot; this was the same Bushie friend who earlier told me that the defining moment of this year's presidential election would prove to be when Smug Al condescendingly sighed and harrumphed throughout Boy George's bumbling in the first debate.

Now that we are just days away from the polls, which open on 7 November, brace yourselves for news of two more phenomena you read here first. One is that the US media (and thus their UK lemmings) have finally cottoned on to the possibility of Ralph Nader being the candidate who could yet ruin it all for Gore. If he gets 8 per cent of the votes in California, for example, he could lose the most populous state in the country for Al, handing Boy George possibly 54 deciding electoral college votes.

The second phenomenon, predicted here months ago, is that, in the final days before the 7 November election, a struggling Gore will call in his heavy hitter - none other than ol' Slugger Bill, returning for one final fling in the electoral ring.

A few days ago, the Gore campaign floated news of a rift between Clinton and Gore (it's true they hate each other - but then, presidents and their vice-presidents always do). This rift was duly and gravely reported in the New York Times, the hacks involved being too thick to realise that they were being used by the Gore team to float the idea in order to test public opinion and let focus groups decide whether it would be an advantage or otherwise to let Clinton loose. (He's dying to do it, incidentally: he and the Bushies retain a visceral mutual dislike, and he also wants posterity to show that he handed the White House to a Democrat, despite Monica et al.)

Latest polls - and the 2000 election may yet prove to be one in which the clear losers are the pollsters - say, variously, that somewhere between 1 per cent and 25 per cent of voters are still undecided. The truth is that both candidates are painfully, self-evidently flawed.

The most depressing statistic of all is that at least 9 per cent of the electorate, and as many as one-third of Americans in general, rely on late-night chat shows for their political information. More alarming still is that, for voters under 30, this figure climbs to half; in the 1996 presidential election, only 32 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds even bothered to vote.

That is why the candidates are now frantically hustling themselves on all the cheapest, most garish talk shows: from Jay Leno to his rival, David Letterman, from Oprah Winfrey to the daytime talk-show host Regis Philbin (who also presides over the US edition of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?), they have all been there, prattling away with their jokes and trying to peddle their likeability (with the exception of Dick Cheney, Boy George's running mate, for whom it is all a step too far). Thus we cringe at the spectacle of Smug Al pretending to hypnotise a chicken (played by Philbin), supposedly to highlight his Tennessee farming roots - but also to charm (he hopes) critical blocs of women voters. The trend started when Richard Nixon first appeared on Laugh-In in 1968, but never before have serious candidates appeared so frequently in so much mindless TV fluff.

This pandering will reach its climax on 5 November, when NBC will screen a two-hour special called Presidential Bash 2000, for which both candidates - realising that this is a crucial way of reaching the mass of voters under 30 - have already taped appearances. Joke writers have thus become the latest invaluable tools in the election entourages; the Democrats use Al Franken, a veteran Washington political satirist whom I have seen entertain at private DC parties.

Self-deprecation is the chief quality that the youth focus groups apparently say is now required. In the taping for this show (I can reveal), Bush thus starts out making fun of his legendary Bushspeak: "When they asked me to help introduce tonight's special, I felt, frankly, am-bilavent . . . I have seen some things on the show that were, in a word, offensible." Gore will then be seen rolling his eyes and making exaggerated sighs: although the segments were recorded separately, they will be spliced to make it appear that the two men are responding to each other.

However, back on the campaign trail a few days ago, Boy George and Smug Al did come face to face, at a charity dinner in Manhattan. The hand of Franken was apparent when Gore deadpanned: "Another thing that bugs me is when people say I'm just a wonk obsessed with policy details. Well, like so many Americans, I like to just kick back and relax and watch television . . . one of my favourite shows is Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Well, it should really be called 'Who Wants to Be After Taxes a $651, 237.07 Person?'." The audience tittered, and then Gore let loose his Frankenite zinger: "Of course, that's under my plan. Under the governor's plan, it would be 'Who Wants to Be After Taxes a $701,452 Person?'."

With just over a week before the polls open, I leave you with two late-night jokes of the kind that swathes of Americans will be using to decide which man will soon become the world's most powerful ruler. First, Letterman: "Al Gore spent the day at the beach with his family. And, I believe, to relax, George W Bush watched an execution." And Leno: "One of the sponsors of the debates is Budweiser, which is kind of ironic: a brewery sponsoring two empties."

Quite so.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Divorce your husband and watch him get rich