The Ultimate TV Candidacy

On Sept. 26, 1960, John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon faced off in the first televised presidential debate. What they said was secondary to how they looked and behaved: Kennedy was charming, tan and wore makeup that pleased the camera; Nixon was underweight, pale and refused powder that could have covered a five o’clock shadow.

As a result, those who watched the debate on TV picked Kennedy the winner by a mile. Radio listeners, in contrast, picked Nixon, believing he had done a better job responding to questions.

“The Great Debates marked television's grand entrance into presidential politics. They afforded the first real opportunity for voters to see their candidates in competition, and the visual contrast was dramatic,” Erika Tyner Allen wrote for the Museum of Broadcast Communications. “Those television viewers focused on what they saw, not what they heard.”

Forty-two years later, it has come to this: Rupert Murdoch and FOX's cable channel, FX, are bringing to television American Candidate, an American Idol-like game/talent show in which 100 political hopefuls will strut their stuff in an attempt to be picked by couch potatoes nationwide to run for president (apply here).

It is, perhaps, the ultimate merger of popular culture and politics. Audience members and at-home viewers, voting by telephone and Internet, will reduce the number of "candidates" each week. The public will pick the winner from the final three, and the results will be broadcast live from the the Mall in Washington, D.C., in July, 2004. Buoyed by the publicity, the winner will presumably be encouraged to run as a third party candidate.

Surprisingly, the United States wasn’t the first country to propose such an idea. A Buenos Aires television channel beat Murdoch by a couple of weeks when, in early September, it announced the launch of The People’s Candidate, a reality TV show that will not only put its winner up as a congressional candidate in 2003, but will also launch a new political party.

According to the BBC, “About 800 people have already auditioned for [The People’s Candidate], including pensioners, transvestites and the unemployed. The search is already underway as judges whittle the hopefuls down to 16 who will appear on the show.”

It's enough to make one laugh for Argentina, much less cry -- but just remember a U.S. network is in on it, too. You could read many things into this: Is it a sure sign of the apocalypse? A natural extension of the Survivor and American Idol-ized global phenomenon? A wonderful, Marxian chance for the proletariat to rise to prominence (although the elite still control the airwaves, so that wouldn’t go too far)? Or is it merely another step in the evolution of the political campaign?

After all, turning the U.S. presidential race into a long, contrived television program would require fewer adjustments than one might think. Campaigns are already so structured that, much like “reality TV,” they are hardly “real” at all. Networks have cut back their coverage of national party conventions because nothing unscripted happens. Only C-SPAN stays tuned.

Remember the 2000 Republican convention, in which organizers paraded members of minority groups across the stage as a sea of white faces looked up from the crowd, all the while keeping far-right, controversial figures such as Texas Rep. Tom DeLay out of sight? That wasn’t reality -- that was sleight of hand, a bag of tricks.

The Democrats pulled their own tricks during Al Gore’s nominating convention. Bring in Bill and Hillary on the first night, then get ’em out the door. Bring in the religious senator Joe Lieberman two nights later to wipe the moral slate clean. Don’t let America be distracted by scandals, real and purported; make it clear that Gore is “his own man.” Still not convinced? Cue up the movie directed by MTV-video-director-turned-film-director Spike Jonze that shows off Gore’s adventurous side and portrays him as a kind, honest family man: the anti-Clinton.

Conventions and other campaign events may be “real,” and they may be “news events,” but they are also manufactured as a commercial product designed to convey a specific message. When things aren’t so neatly controlled, when something such as an unchecked microphone is on, chaos can ensue. Consider George W. Bush’s near-legendary flub at a campaign event when he called a New York Times reporter a “major league asshole,” and everyone heard. Clearly this “backstage” moment was the last thing Bush wanted; it helped temporarily stall his campaign and diverted attention from his message.

Now compare the politicians with the participants on Survivor, who knowingly perform for the camera while trying to “keep it real.” Many events are contrived, and the final product is a carefully constructed, heavily edited, 44-minute packaging of three days’ worth of “news,” designed to typecast players to focus the audience’s attention on “storylines” deemed interesting by the producers. The producers sometimes even re-arrange the order of events “for dramatic purposes” -- to manufacture discord and create a narrative that isn’t really there. And we call this reality? (To his credit, Survivor executive producer Mark Burnett has said from the beginning that “reality TV” is a misnomer for his show -- that “unscripted drama” is more apt. He’s right.)

The presidential debates are not much better. The execution is just as tight, down to the exact room temperature, the height of the lecterns or seats, the overly negotiated rules regarding the questions and answers, and the carefully chosen audience members for the so-called “town meeting” debates. When then-President Bush famously glanced at his watch 10 years ago during a debate with Clinton, it may have been the most spontaneous debate moment recorded on film that year.

There’s a reason why lawyers and campaign advisers argue over format. If the rules of the 2000 debates, for example, had been looser -- had the events been more “real” -- there could have been at least two doozies. In the first debate, Gore erroneously stated that he had traveled to Texas in 1998 with the head of the federal disaster agency to view flood damage. Bush was fairly sure at the time that this was incorrect. In a more free-flowing format, he might have called Gore on it. Now that would have been interesting.

Similarly, in the third debate, Bush was asked a question about affirmative action and gave a meandering reply that revealed no depth of knowledge on his part as to the meaning of the concept. Gore asked Bush if he agreed with what the Supreme Court has said about the legality of affirmative action, and Bush was trapped. He looked to moderator Jim Lehrer for help, and since the rules stated that candidates could not ask questions of each other, Lehrer moved on to another question. But the immediate impression was that Bush had no idea what the Supreme Court had said about affirmative action and needed Lehrer to bail him out. If Bush were forced to answer the question, the confrontation might have kicked up a few more Nielsen points.

Political parties don’t want us to think about structure (though we do nonetheless). They want us to see it as pure reality, to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. But this simply illuminates that politics and campaigning is already a show, no more perfectly “real” than an episode of, say, The Mole. American Candidate, then, may simply be an inevitable step in the process.

And it might not be such a bad idea. Imagine if the 2004 pool of Democratic contenders appeared on ABC each week (the network that most needs a hit) with Clinton-adviser-turned-journalist George Stephanopoulos. They could debate the issues and take part in challenges: Persuade a foreign head of state to side with the United States on invading Iraq! Find Cheney’s hidden lair! Get the country out of an economic slump and deliver a tax cut -- all without destroying Social Security! An impartial group like The League of Women Voters could serve as “judges” and Democratic voters nationwide as the “jury,” voting off one candidate each week.

In theory it could make the whole process far more democratic, but this type of “reality” show would sap too much power from the political establishment. (In a 2000 Republican version of such a show, John McCain might have actually bested Bush.)

True, the whole concept seems more suited for a Saturday Night Live skit than the real world, but Murdoch is likely to see it through in one form or another. And you can bet that on American Candidate, no presidential wannabe will be caught on camera with an unattractive five o’clock shadow.

Chris Wright, an editor and writer in the Washington, D.C., area, is pursuing a master's degree in communication, culture and technology at Georgetown University. He previously wrote about Gary Condit and the news narrative and has reported extensively on Survivor.

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