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When Cool is Too Cool

By Kathleen Parker

WASHINGTON -- All over America, millions of voters don't know -- or care -- that Mike Gravel has an "artistic'' side or that Hillary Clinton likes Celine Dion.

Yes, it's hard to believe if you're a tuned-in, turned-on popular culture vulture umbilically connected to the blogosphere/videosphere. But cross the country and ask normal people about the latest Gravel ad and they'd think you don't know how to pronounce the word for tiny pebbles.

Ask working folks about "You and I,'' the campaign song selected by Clinton in her recent Sopranos-spoof video, and most will shrug indifferently.

Everyday people, in other words, are too busy getting to work, raising children and going to their respective houses of worship to monitor the virtual world where Gravel (who is running for president, by the way), Clinton and other presidential candidates have posted about 900 political videos.

Unquestionably, YouTube, the blogosphere and other avenues of the ether world have altered politics in unforeseeable ways. Those 900 videos have been viewed as many as 10 million times, according to Personal Democracy Forum, a Web site that tracks technology and politics.

Savvy candidates can ill afford to ignore the power -- and voter access -- that the Internet provides. But the savviest won't forget those other millions who are waiting tables, driving trucks and otherwise figure life is too short to station themselves for long before a computer screen.

Of the hundreds of videos out there, Clinton's and Gravel's -- the best and worst of the bunch -- are probably the most familiar, thanks to generous news coverage.

In Clinton's flick, the well-dressed senator sits in a diner booth flipping through the tabletop jukebox, just as Tony Soprano did in the series finale. In walks Bill Clinton, wearing a loose guayabera and exuding the 'tude of a truant adolescent.

For Americans familiar with the final installment of "The Sopranos,'' the video is oh-so clever. Clinton orders carrots instead of the onion rings that Tony ordered. Bill says: "No onion rings?''

"I'm lookin' out for you,'' says the Mrs.

"So what's the winning song? ... My money is on Smash Mouth,'' says the former prez.

No cheating: Who or what is Smash Mouth? Even if you know, this pop reference is clearly aimed at younger folks who are the primary audience and producers of YouTube. Translation: The Clintons are cool.

Beyond the entertainment value of seeing a former president playing Fonz to the Godmother, the video's success is predicated on a community of coolness. But is it important that the leader of the free world be hip to Smash Mouth and other touchstones of popular culture?

It's all rather insider stuff and has not much to do with the real world in which most Americans dwell. That would not, incidentally, be the same world inhabited by one Mike Gravel, perhaps the oddest creature to grip a lectern since Ross Perot tortured America with pie charts.

In his online videos, Gravel has fashioned a surreal blend of Jean-Paul Sartre and "The Blair Witch Project.''

In one, we see Gravel's expressionless face too close to the camera, staring. In the background is a pond bordered by a path. Gravel says nothing for several long seconds, then turns, walks away, picks up a large rock and tosses it in the water.

Gravel, uh, makes a splash.

Another video similarly places Gravel outdoors, this time showing the candidate silently collecting sticks, with which he Lights A Fire. Wow, that is, like, so symbolic.

For a candidate little known outside of Alaska, for which he served two terms as a U.S. senator, Internet buzz about his weird videos beats no buzz. But has it really come to this? Presidential candidates making spoofy-goofy home movies to win votes?

To be fair, candidates are as much victims as benefactors of the YouTube age, trapped between two dimensions of reality that are fundamentally in conflict. One reality pertains to Americans who have neither the time nor the urge to "get'' the latest hip thing. The other concerns the very real phenomenon of a parallel universe where younger, more technologically attuned Americans preside.

Candidates can't afford to ignore either, but ultimately they're forced to present two different faces to two different audiences -- the plugged and the unplugged, the hip and the un-hip.

The question is: Which is the true face? Which persona will lead the nation? Come Election Day, it may not be so cool to be so cool.

(c) 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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