The Watcher - Back to the future

Tanner "88' relives presidential campaigns past"

Since I moved away from the Beltway, I've noticed that people talk about "The Government" as if it's a mythological beast that demands we pay taxes or else it will burn our houses down with its fiery breath. But because I grew up a short Metro ride from the Capitol, the government is the people in my neighborhood.

Almost all the adults in my life seemed to work for political action committees, government contractors or mysterious agencies popularly known by acronyms. And I wasn't the only kid on the block like that. One of my childhood friends visited his dad on the Hill and stole Bob Dole's paperweight. Maybe that's why I'm so into "Tanner '88." The mini-series originally aired on HBO 16 years ago, but Sundance dusted off this gem because of its eerie resemblance to this year's presidential race. In 1988, like now, a myriad of Democrats were battling for nomination to unseat a Republican president and beat a guy named Bush. Then, like now, Richard Gephardt dropped out relatively early.

Created by Pulitzer Prize-wining cartoonist Garry Trudeau ("Doonesbury") and director Robert Altman, "Tanner '88" offers a voyeuristic peek at the presidential campaign trail. Fictitious candidate Jack Tanner (Michael Murphy) enters the 1988 race in time for the New Hampshire primary. Although Tanner's story is fabricated, 1988's real campaign trail served as the setting, which led to cameos by actual candidates such as Gary "Monkey Business" Hart and a less-old-looking Pat Robertson.

The series has been revamped slightly with present-day reflections from Tanner, his daughter Alex (Cynthia Nixon) and campaign manager T.J. Cavanaugh (Pamela Reed) that precede the original shows. Trudeau's witty writing captures the absurdity of marketing people like bottles of shampoo while cameraman-dodging characters convey the hectic pace of campaigning. The beautiful irony of the show is that Tanner, the man who would lead the free world, is depicted as a pawn who gets pushed around by his team of strategists and his annoying daughter.

Back in the 2004 race, we're not even halfway through the primaries — the District of Columbia, Nevada and Wisconsin are up next. Rather than OD on standard news fare, tune in to the entertaining but informative comedian-based talk shows. Unlike stuffy journalists, comedians don't have to worry about things like "fair and balanced." They manage to do what so many talking heads fail to: They translate the political jargon into something everyone can understand.

It's refreshing to see presidential candidates plopped on the couch of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" (Comedy Central, Mon.-Thurs. 11 p.m.). Stewart's frank but friendly manner lures his guests out of their predetermined public image and then it's like watching people hang out. One guy on the couch, one guy behind a desk — I half expect them to crack open a couple of beers and tell fart jokes.

And sometimes they do. But after the "yell heard round the world," it was Stewart who asked Dean point blank: "So what's the deal with the yell?" Stewart's on top of current events, he understands health care issues — he's funny, but he's smart. He can ask tough questions and asks for explanations when he gets a complicated answer. And unlike his journalist counterparts, he has an escape route if a guest gets too flustered: He can always revert to "just kidding."

Bill Maher takes the sting off a lot of his comments with "just kidding" in "Real Time with Bill Maher" (HBO, Fridays 8 p.m.). Basically, it's "Politically Incorrect" uncut and uncensored. Unlike Stewart's show, Maher sticks to strictly politics. Sometimes, too strictly. The guests tend to babble on about hard-to-follow economic policies until something in your brain snaps and all you can hear is "waah wah waah" like the adults in "Charlie Brown."

Whatever you do, avoid "Dennis Miller" (CNBC, Mon.-Fri. 9 p.m.). He mucked up hosting football and his bizarre ramblings are even more out of place in the arena of politics.