Why Politicians Aren't American Idols

There's a lot to be learned from reality TV. Aside from the obvious, such as that people will do anything to see their face on television, that there are live wiggling protein sources you never considered eating and wouldn't unless it meant you would see your face on television, and to paraphrase H.L. Mencken, that no one ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of bored TV viewers, there's also the revelation that it really is possible to get people involved.

Look at American Idol, which for reasons that apparently had more to do with solar flares than entertainment value, was hugely popular. The two-hour finale drew 22.8 million viewers. Of them, 16 million cast a vote to select the winner. That means 72.7 percent of those watching actually went through the trouble of having someone hand them the phone, then punching 11 buttons when they could have been doing something constructive, such as going to the bathroom, breaking open another bag of Slim Jim flavored tortilla chips, or--lord help us--reading a book.

Contrast this with the last presidential election, but only if you promise not to start that He-Stole-It-No-He-Didn't argument again. On that November day 51.3 percent of the American public who were eligible to vote bothered doing so. Now it's true you couldn't vote by phone from the comfort of your Coke-stained La-Z-Boy recliner. And it's also true that none of the political commentators were half as cranky or entertaining as Simon Cowell. (Okay, John McLaughlin of the McLaughlin Group is, but only 27 people in the country know who he is and of them, only four have actually watched the show.). But that doesn't fully explain why 42 percent more people will vote for an overhyped singer than an overhyped politician.

It's probably because American Idol was so much more fun than the campaign. Then again, anything this side of a root canal is more fun than an election, though you have to admit that watching candidates on the campaign trail would be much more bearable if we were given nitrous oxide to dull the pain. It's October 2002 and the presidential election isn't for two years. Yet already the media is saying Al Gore will announce whether he's planning on running by the first of the year. Hey, there's a reason the networks only produce 22 episodes in a normal season--they don't want us to get sick of it. In TV as well as elections, familiarity breeds boredom. Didn't we learn anything from Who Wants to be a Millionaire? After five-night-a-week overkill Reeg is back where he belongs, sucking up to a pretty young co-host. Is this what we want of our presidents? Of course not, we want them to be different. We want the pretty young things to suck up to them.

There's no question people are bored with politics. That's why in the recent Nevada gubernatorial primary the Democratic candidate with the second-most number of votes was "None." That's right, the state that allows gambling will let you bet on no one to win the election. Actually this year was an improvement over 1976 and 1978 when "None" came in first in the congressional primaries. Unfortunately "None" isn't allowed to win so they gave the seats to the second-place candidates. Talk about having losers in Congress.

A lot could be done to spice up the election process. For starters, the campaign could be short, like English elections and Emeril's eponymous sitcom. We could also limit the amount of money they can spend, which would not only put candidates on an even keel, but would give someone who might not have more than $124.98 of his or her own money to toss into the campaign a fighting chance. After all, they're elections, not an episode of Who Wants to be a Millionaire So You Can Buy a Senate Seat. But the most effective thing we could do would be to make elections more like reality TV.

When the campaign season starts, which is about a week after election day, every Tom, Dick, and Lamar who ever dreamed about having sex in the Lincoln bed tosses his or her hat into the ring. By the time election day rolls around there are only two major party candidates left standing. As long as there's such a high attrition rate, why not make good, entertaining use of it? Lets take a tip from Survivor and hold candidate challenges to see who can shake the most hands in one day, who can track down and capture a citizen that actually cares, and who can eat the most crow the soonest, which of course they'll have to do when they get into office and change their stripes anyway. Then once a week they'll gather around a campfire with Jeff Probst and vote someone out of the campaign. Hopefully none of them will take to walking around naked.

Then we'll add a dash of Fear Factor. We'll make them do things they'd never dream of doing if the presidency wasn't at stake. Things which make any candidate break out in a cold sweat. You know, like submit to a lie detector test, speak in simple declarative sentences that have a well defined point, and say "scout's honor" after every speech. Next we'll put them in a room with the CFO of Enron and a hot young intern and watch them sweat--think Big Brother meets Temptation Island--and we'll make them get in the ring for Celebrity Boxing with 15-minute has-beens like Kato Kaelin, Gary Coleman, and Ross Perot.

If we do this we might just end up with an election in which people enjoy being involved and might actually cast a vote. Especially if they can do it by phone. "Press one for the Democratic candidate. Press two for the Republican candidate. Press three for Ralph Nader even though there's no chance in hell he can win. Press four for 'None.' Press five to start this menu over. And press six to hang up and start the campaign over."

More Mad Dog can be found online at: www.maddogproductions.com. His compilation of humorous travel columns, "If It's Such a Small World Then Why Have I Been Sitting on This Airplane For Twelve Hours?" is available from Xlibris Corporation. Email: md@maddogproductions.com.

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