There was a reason Bill Clinton's 1992 turn on MTV was so indelible, and it wasn't just the saxophone or that matter of boxers and briefs. More than most politicians, Clinton managed the delicate feat of talking convincingly to kids without talking down to them.
He does it again tomorrow night on Nickelodeon's ''Nick News Special: The Fight to Be Fit," a half-hour town hall meeting about youth obesity and a showcase for our ex-empathizer-in-chief. Perched on a backless chair, disconcertingly thin, Clinton admits that his love for fast food led to heart surgery, and reveals some stark details from his youth. He weighed 185 pounds at age 13, he says, 210 at age 15. Was he teased? ''Oh my gosh, yes." He feels kids' pain.
Many hands were wrung, during the 2004 campaign, over which candidates seemed presidential; some apparently think Americans want their leaders regal like Martin Sheen or glossily perfect like Geena Davis. Clinton understands that connecting to people often has more to do with looking vulnerable -- and dispensing the sorts of aphorisms that seem, to willing ears, like wisdom.
''Just remember this the whole rest of your life," he tells the crowd. ''If somebody says sump'n mean to you, it's not about you. It's about them."
Mostly, this is a show about eating habits, not self-esteem. Clinton's scared-straight advice is backed by testimony from health experts and encouragement from host Linda Ellerbee. Presiding cross-legged in jeans and high-top sneakers, she blames adults for sending mixed messages about food and health.
''I'm here to dare you and your whole generation to tune us out and tune into your bodies, instead," she says.
Still, the grown-ups are doing their part. Clinton's foundation and the American Heart Association recently announced a partnership with Nickelodeon's ''Let's Just Play" anti-obesity campaign. And while it might seem strange for a children's TV channel to preach fitness, this special is well-meaning and direct. Ellerbee even suggests it's good to turn the TV off sometimes.
But it's the kids, in the end, who raise the bar, turning what could have been a gentle exercise in finger-wagging into a more intriguing debate: the food industry's obligations versus personal responsibility. Oddly (or maybe not) it's the adults -- Clinton foremost -- who want the most regulation, such as barring junk food from schools. The kids seem to believe that, if they work hard enough, they can summon the will to resist temptation.
Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.