Palin, Huckabee and the lure of star power

Jon Stewart, right,  interviews Mike Huckabee on the 'The Daily Show" in September, 2008. Huckabee is now with Fox News.

Story highlights

  • John Avlon: It's hard to run for office, and the lure of highly paid TV seems more attractive
  • Avlon: Palin goes on "Today" show, Huckabee declines to run and sticks with Fox news
  • A TV appearance is fine, but is no substitute for commitment to real public service, he says
  • Soundbites on a TV show are poor second to public debate, civic involvement, Avlon writes

It's tough to get quality people to run for political office these days. There's the cult-like polarization, the vicious mudslinging, and the cost to families and finances.

But there's a new trend which promises to make the problem much worse: It seems that people who have achieved elected office would rather be on TV.

Sarah Palin's appearance as a co-host on the "Today Show" was just the latest reminder that she walked away from the governor's mansion in Alaska after getting a taste for the bright lights. Yes, she told her constituents that she was looking out for their best interests by removing the distraction she had become. But the prospect of a lucrative cable news contract, a reality show and big-ticket speaking gigs was certainly a large part of the incentive.

In a way you can't blame her -- she got maximum compensation and minimum responsibility. But this shortcut to the financial side of the American Dream ignores the larger honor of being elected to serve in the first place. You don't walk away from that sacred trust of executive office because you'd rather be doing something else.

A variation on this theme can be also seen in Mike Huckabee -- a genial conservative and inspiring orator. It's now apparent that the former Arkansas governor could have been a real contender in the presidential campaign if he had chosen to compete. He could have quickly established himself as the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, and I believe he would now be the favorite in this race.

But Huckabee was making good money with a weekend show at Fox News. He was building a house in the Florida Panhandle and launched a nationally syndicated radio show that promises to compete head-to-head with Rush Limbaugh. I wish him all the success in the world. But I can't help but feel he passed up not only an opportunity, but also an obligation -- to do the hard thing and throw his hat in the ring.

Former governors like Eliot Spitzer and Jennifer Granholm, now hosting prime-time hours on the Al Gore-owned Current TV, are other recent examples of this trend.

Look, talking about politics on television is fun and purposeful. At its best it can help elevate the debate and cut through the self-interested partisan spin. But it is no substitute for the honor and opportunity of actually serving in elected office. That is the main event in politics -- a chance to make a difference directly in people's lives, rather than just the bank-shot of making a point in the public eye.

At the end of the day, the impulses to work in government or journalism should have some degree of overlap in the best sense: a commitment to civic debates, public policy and making a positive difference in the life of your city, state and nation.

I don't fault those political figures who, with their time in public service behind them, decide to remain engaged in the great debates through writing and television. Presidents like Calvin Coolidge and Theodore Roosevelt wrote newspaper columns in their sunset years after leaving office. But choosing to avoid the real arena for the comparative comfort of a TV studio seems like a softening of our democracy.

Maybe it reflects the frustrations of executive office in our era, a process surrounded by partisan land mines, polarized legislatures and legal red tape. The process of legislating in obscurity for low pay is another disincentive for public service, which explains why so many members of Congress and their staff cash out for jobs on K Street.

But when the lure of celebrity and luxury outweighs the responsibility of public service, it represents a challenge to our democracy. The people who have the honor of holding high elective office also have the obligation to lead by example. The bottom line is that we're in danger of getting it backward -- the broadcast studio is not the real bully pulpit.

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