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Jeff Greenfield: Politics as TV entertainment

CNN political analyst Jeff Greenfield
CNN political analyst Jeff Greenfield

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Mix "The West Wing" with "American Idol" and what might you come up with? How about "American Candidate," a reality television show planned for 2004 on the FX network. On the show, contestants will compete for a chance to run for the presidency. CNN senior political analyst Jeff Greenfield offered his take on political reality with CNN anchor Bill Hemmer.

HEMMER: More than a gimmick here or not?

GREENFIELD: It is a gimmick, but there is something more intriguing about it. Now, we should recognize, by the way, that television for decades has been in the business, sort of, of picking candidates. In 1952, "Howdy Doody," that famous puppet that was the source of many naughty schoolyard jokes, actually ran for president against Phineas T. Bluster. He was the bad grownup. The gimmick here was you had to buy a loaf of Wonder Bread in order to cast a ballot.

And then suddenly -- there he is, Howdy Doody and his opponent. This was not a debate. Howdy Doody won because they hadn't canceled the show yet.

And then in 1968, Pat Paulson, who was a comedian on "The Smothers Brothers Show," made a highly unserious run for the presidency.

Now, there's a little more serious undertone to this. This need or this belief in America that you can find somebody from the heartland, unsullied by politics, goes way back. I mean if you think of the Frank Capra movies, "Meet John Doe," about a jobless man who became the voice of the common man, "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington," the innocent suddenly thrown into the Senate, this is a very much a feeling that Americans have.

And in real life, where did Ross Perot launch his candidacy? CNN's Larry King show.

HEMMER: Yes, very true.

GREENFIELD: He got 19 percent of the vote and, as you said in the tease, Jesse Ventura, who got famous as a professional wrestler and then as a talk show host, is the governor of Minnesota.

HEMMER: So listen now, people are cynical about politics in many corners, anyway. Does this make them more cynical? Does it trivialize the process?

GREENFIELD: Well, if they have a swimsuit competition, it's probably not going to be good for serious...

HEMMER: Please, no.

GREENFIELD: And thinking of some of the candidates, William Howard Taft would not have worked there. But, you know, there are two things to be said about that. First, the idea of actually finding a forum where people will listen to people talk about issues, which is one of the premises of this show, is not all that bad an idea, considering how badly politicians and the media have mucked up the business of communicating about politics. People are turned off.

And second, let's acknowledge that real live candidates -- I mean look at how Bush and Gore, they went on "Letterman," they went on "Saturday Night Live" as well as "Oprah." This is a tradition that goes back many years and politicians, Bill Clinton playing the saxophone on "Arsenio Hall."

So we shouldn't assume that politicians are above the idea of using entertainment medium.

HEMMER: Now, I know some of this is said in fun. Some of it is said in satire. But you have an idea, too, for voter turnout?

GREENFIELD: I think, frankly, the Nobel Prize is in my future. Look, what is everybody talking about this morning? The Emmy Awards, right? Millions and millions more people would rather vote for the best actor or best actress than they would for senator or governor or president.

So I have a very simple idea, that we change the rules of our electoral system where if you register and actually show up to vote for president or governor or senator, you also get to vote for the Emmys or the Oscars or the Grammys. I think the turnout would be 98 percent.

The only problem is if the people in Florida, the way they count the ballots, Anna Nicole Smith probably would be elected governor.

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