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Ruth Marcus: Socking it to themselves

BY RUTH MARCUS Published: September 22, 2012

Yes — and too much of it. I was at the MTV town hall in 1994 when Clinton, by then president, was asked the fateful question: Boxers or briefs? In the moment before Clinton chose to reply, I remember hoping that he would demur, maybe even take the young woman to task for her disrespectful cheekiness.

Obama, when his turn in the underwear spotlight came as a candidate in 2008, did slightly better. “I don't answer those humiliating questions,” he said — and then could not resist adding, “But whichever one it is, I look good in 'em.”

Meanwhile, such silliness has leached into supposedly serious news. At a CNN Republican debate last year, John King peppered the candidates with such momentous choices as “Elvis or Johnny Cash” and “‘Dancing with the Stars' or ‘American Idol.'”

The want-to-have-a-beer-with-him question has its place; choosing a president means inviting someone into our living rooms — or, these days, onto our laptops — for the next four years. If we crave a sense of the person underneath the policy positions, that is entirely understandable.

But his pajama preferences?

Maybe this development is better than the alternative of voters proceeding on the basis of even less knowledge. At least the ones who see Romney on “Live!” may hear some policy amid the fluff.

“Some of these people do vote, and it's better if they get a little substance even if it's not the good democratic citizen Aristotle imagines,” says Harvard professor Matthew Baum. His studies of candidates' appearances on daytime talk shows suggest politically inattentive voters who watched tended to do better than those who didn't watch at picking candidates in line with their views.

OK, but at the cost of turning politics into infotainment, emphasis on the — tainment.

Honey Boo Boo or Snooki? Bread or circuses? I guess we know the answer.