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Sunday Primetime

From time to time, we ask New York drama critic Jeremy McCarter to assess the theater of politics. Here's his take on some candidate appearances on this weekend's Sunday morning talk shows:

Let the screenwriters keep striking. Without their help, the Sunday talk shows go on yielding tense plots and subplots, improbable characters in twisty relationships, and bold strokes of comedy. Some of them are even intentional.

"Great to be here," said Hillary Clinton as she walked onto the set of This Week with George Stephanopoulos. Is "great" the word she wants there? Behind interviewer and interviewee stretches a long history, full of volcanoes--one that created half an hour of weirdly compelling psychodrama. Stephanopoulos needed to press Hillary about the usefulness of her experience as First Lady. Yet as an aide and confidant of her husband, he probably could have answered most of his own questions. He never did refer to his four years in the White House, or the Whitewater section of All Too Human, the autobiography in which he describes giving Hillary advice that reduced her to angry tears. Nor did either of Hillary's two oblique references to Stephanopoulos's time in the West Wing illuminate their eventful past. Here was some cool, cool professionalism. But was that a touch of frost in her voice when she said "Great to see you" as the interviewed ended?

In more cheerful news for Hillary, whatever time she's been spending focus-grouping her laugh lately is paying off. When confronted with a Peggy Noonan column that called her more polarizing than Nixon, she erupted not in the old cackle but a new effusion, with a hint of giggle. Charm! Alas, she had the bad luck to be followed by John McCain. Appearing on a live feed from Iowa, he didn't wear the fixed smile of most politicians--the kind that makes you think their captors are just out of view, feeding them ransom demands to read to the camera--but one that suggested a barely stifled laugh. Clearly this man is loving life, though is it because his precipitous return to contention means he might win, or because now he's really going to go splat if he loses? As David Grann wrote in TNR during the 2000 campaign, McCain has a perverse love of long odds and losing propositions. When Stephanopoulos asked him how he could compete after accepting public financing, McCain flashed him a grin that all but announced, "How in the hell am I going to pull this off?" He managed to sneak a plug for his website into a discussion of his campaign's finances just before the interview ended, and laughed like crazy.

On Meet the Press, Mike Huckabee proved less captivating, in no way living up to his reputation as the funny one--not on purpose, anyway. Tim Russert, going easier on him than I expected, invited the candidate to "give us a sense" of Pakistan, a country about which he's made some "inartful" (Russert's word) comments. Huckabee's briefing book had just begun springing to life, as he unfurled such essential facts as the country's population and its Muslim composition, when out from the undergrowth pounced the old carnivorous Russert: "Primarily Shiite or Sunni?" he demanded. Huckabee looked down. He shifted his mug slightly on the desk.  "It, it--it's primarily, uh, Sunni," he said. Maybe he knew his facts cold, and this was just an admirable flair for the dramatic. But if he had showed the same blinking hesitation when asked whether it is the meek or the peacemakers who will inherit the earth, his qualifications for pastordom would have seemed a trifle suspect.

Barack Obama was more satisfying on Pakistan, and on pretty much every other subject (though he couldn't boast of getting kind words from Truckers Magazine, as Huckabee did). Like all good politicians, Obama can slip out of an inconvenient question by reframing it in his answer. When Hillary does this, it's grating; from him, it's somehow ennobling. Russert cited a Washington Post editorial criticizing Obama and his aides for arguing that Hillary's vote on the Iraq war contributed to Benazir Bhutto's assassination. Obama made clear that he was "not drawing a causal relationship between any single vote" and the tragedy, yet the upshot of his two-paragraph-long answer was that Iraq distracted us from Afghanistan, which has destabilized Pakistan, which has created the kind of volatility that gets people killed--and he said it all in a way that reinforces the notion that he's thinking more complexly about the world than his opponents. He can overdo the parsing sometimes, as when he claimed that "every objective observer" says the three leading Democratic candidates "basically have the same plan" for fixing health care except for some philosophical differences, which would be news to readers of Jon Cohn or Paul Krugman. Still, the more times you see him think and talk circles around people who have been showing up on Sunday morning TV since his school days, dodging their clich