National Voices

Tuesday, Sep 25 2012 11:00 PM

DANA MILBANK: No time for big issues with all this small talk

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    Dana Milbank

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As heads of government arrived in New York on Monday to attend the opening of the United Nations General Assembly, President Obama also made his way to Manhattan but to see a different group of world leaders: Barbara, Elisabeth, Joy, Sherri and Whoopi.

It bordered on scandalous that Obama, joined by the first lady, would make time to sit down with the women of "The View" even as he declined foreign leaders' requests to meet with him one on one in New York this week. (He left that menial task to his secretary of state.) But Mitt Romney isn't in an ideal position to press Obama on his priorities.

This is because the Republican presidential nominee and his wife, Ann, just spent some quality time on the set of "Live! With Kelly and Michael," where they discussed, among other things, Snooki, peanut butter and chocolate milk, their toothpaste-squeezing techniques, Romney's singing of western tunes while on horseback and what the candidate wears to bed. Then there was Ann Romney's scheduled appearance on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" on Tuesday -- the same day Obama's appearance on "The View" was to air.

The candidates tell you that this campaign is about big issues. If you believe that, you're being snookied.

Romney doesn't dabble in messy things such as what precisely he would do in Afghanistan or with the tax code. But he has made time to do interviews with Leno, David Letterman and People magazine in addition to Kelly and Michael. Obama hasn't held a formal news conference in the White House in more than six months, but he has found places on his calendar for Leno, Letterman, Jimmy Fallon, People, "Entertainment Tonight" and, of course, "The View."

In this "Jersey Shore" culture, it's perhaps inevitable that candidates would try to reach voters by chatting about the banal and the prurient. But this doesn't make it any less depressing.

This summer, Obama chatted with New Mexico radio hosts about which superpower he'd like to have ("to be able to speak any language"), his favorite workout song (Beyonce's "Crazy in Love") and his favorite chile ("the classic red"). This wasn't long after Michelle Obama volunteered to People the couple's bedtime ritual: "He's like, 'Ready to be tucked?' I'm like, 'Yes I am.'"

There's apparently no use in taking the high road. In his secretly recorded speech to donors, Romney explained that he wouldn't appear on "Saturday Night Live" because it's "not presidential" or "The View" because most of the hosts "are sharp-tongued and not conservative," or Letterman because he "hates me because I've been on Leno more than him."

But after the "View" ladies complained on air, Romney's campaign sent word that he would appear on the show in October.

Whatever happens there, it probably couldn't be less presidential than the Romneys' experience with Kelly Ripa and Michael Strahan. Romney, misunderstanding a question, at first suggested that he would like Gene Hackman to play his wife in a movie. He then praised Hackman's performance in "The Birdcage" -- a movie about drag queens that is probably not a favorite of his conservative supporters.

Ann Romney spoke about walking in on George W. Bush in the White House while he was having a massage. When the Romneys were asked, "What does Mitt wear to bed?" the candidate replied: "I think the best answer is as little as possible."

Romney did demonstrate some pop-culture literacy when he noted that reality-TV star Snooki had lost weight. Obama had confessed on "The View" two years ago that he didn't know who Snooki was.

Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, gained further small-talk cred when they confided to People that they liked the George Clooney movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" The pair also discussed Ryan's purchase of a new chain saw.

The banality circuit has its perils, though. When Michelle Obama tried last month to make a joke about Leno's dietary habits, it came across as if she were scolding her fellow guest, Olympian Gabby Douglas, for eating McDonald's. The president went out to set the record straight -- in a radio interview with Iowa's "Big Ken and Colleen." He also used that forum to talk about back-to-school shopping, his girls' summer camp, and his boyhood desires to be an architect or a professional basketball player.

Little could he have imagined back then that he would instead grow up to reach an even higher station in life: regular guest on "The View."

Email Dana Milbank of The Washington Post at danamilbank@washpost.com.

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