Politicians Showing Their 'Genuine' Sides

Aug. 22, 2006 — -- Look up Evan Bayh in the Congressional Directory and you'll find he's a second-term senator from Indiana who serves on the Intelligence and Armed Services Committees.

Check out Bayh on Facebook.com, and you get something akin to a politician channeling his inner teen.

Bayh lists among his favorite TV viewing habits: ESPN, "The West Wing " and "24."

His interests include not only the war on terror but also Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity and black-raspberry-chip ice cream. His favorite animal is simply "Party" -- presumably the Democratic kind.

Bayh's not the only 2008 hopeful trying to make "friends" on the popular social networking site.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., paid a recent visit to Facebook's California headquarters.

Starting next month, candidates can advertise on the site at reduced rates.

For politicians, the advantages of a Facebook presence are obvious: It's a chance to connect with the site's nearly 9 million registered users, most of whom are students in their teens and early 20s, and to show their lighter, more human side.

In some ways, it's a logical extension of candidate blogs and of sites like Meetup.com, which brought together scores of Howard Dean supporters in 2004.

While online communities may be the latest political frontier, reaching out to young voters on their own turf is nothing new.

Bill Clinton campaigned on MTV; Al Gore sat in a hot tub with "Joe Lieberman" on "Saturday Night Live"; and, in 1968, Richard Nixon appeared on "Laugh-In."

The effort can also backfire, however, as Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., found out earlier this summer when he appeared on Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report."

Westmoreland, who had co-sponsored a bill that required the display of the Ten Commandments in the House of Representatives and the Senate, couldn't name the commandments on camera.

Politicians have even less control over their image when it comes to the Web.

Facebook's networking groups for Kerry include "The John Kerry Hate Club," which has 178 members, and "Don't Blame Me: I voted for John Kerry in 2004," with 107 members.

"John Kerry for President in 2008" lists just 10 members.

Even politicians' sanctioned pages can offer pitfalls.

First, maintaining an online presence is a lot of work.

Bayh helped create his Facebook page but relies on a staffer to communicate with the senator's 2,497 "friends," often fielding tough day-to-day questions like:

"How will the [Indianapolis] Colts do without Edgerrin James?" and "Who knew you liked to party? Then again, who doesn't?"

The biggest danger is if the effort to appear "genuine" comes across as anything but.

Along with its more creative entries, Bayh's Facebook profile falls back on a number of political cliches, such as apple pie and BBQ for favorite foods, and "anything about President Lincoln" under favorite books.

With so many young people hungering for authenticity in the public sphere, candidates who can't show a real person behind the profile could actually wind up alienating many of those they're trying to court.

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