WASHINGTON — "WANTED," the ad says. "Leader of the free world. Vision desirable. Passion indispensable. Leadership essential. Intelligence, please. Wit appreciated. Looks help."
Welcome to the making of the president, Hollywood style. A new reality cable TV show will show citizens (US born, of course, as well as dreamily good-looking) competing "American Idol" style to run for president.
"American Candidate" - scheduled to air on Showtime during the summer of 2004 - will have "amazing relevance" to real-life politics, producers say. Their fondest dream: "Who knows, maybe our winner will actually decide to enter the race." ("We couldn't get the Democratic, Republican, Libertarian, Green, or Maharishi party candidates, but we do have Gary Coleman, Lyndon LaRouche, and the winning candidate from Showtime!")
We've come a long way from what Walter Cronkite used to call the "national civics lesson" that was the quadrennialpresidential campaign.
When three networks dictated America's viewing habits, they could afford to educate their audiences about politics. Now, in our digital multichannel world, it takes "infotainment" to interest audiences, and candidates like Arnold Schwarzenegger to win elections. The line between politics and show business has been fading for years - now it's practically a faint memory.
At the ready with an eraser is none other than the Federal Election Commission. No longer willing to be thought of as one of those stodgy, passionless rulemaking bodies, the FEC issued an advisory opinion that "American Candidate" would not violate election laws. What a relief!
We don't know for sure if there will be any "Survivor"-style tests (worms for dinner, anyone?) along the way for "American Candidate" contestants. According to the press release, 12 finalists "will face off against each other in a series of challenges designed to test their presidential mettle and to show viewers what really goes on in the making of a presidential candidate.... They will engage in debates, hold political rallies, receive the advice of seasoned political strategists, create advertisements, select running mates, have their backgrounds scrutinized by the press, and engage in opposition research. Everything is fair game."
(Ooo, just imagine the minidramas about to unfold. I can't wait to see those episodes about the advice of seasoned strategists: "Do a poll! No, buy more TV!")
Everything is fair game? What exactly does that mean? Will candidates on this show have to campaign in the nude? The eligibility requirements on the show's website are considerably more specific than Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution, from stipulating that candidates not have been on another game show in the past year and be willing to "be filmed whenever Producer deems necessary." ("Which candidate can make poached eggs after being awakened at 3 a.m.? Our cameras found out!")
In England, a fine and eccentric tradition exists of candidates running hopeless races to make a theatrical gesture, under the banner of homemade parties like the Monster Raving Loony Party (which is actually one of the more respected ones). On our side of the pond, we have enough problems getting citizens to take Democrats and Republicans seriously without a presidential candidate from Showtime, Nickelodeon, or the National Rifle Association. We don't need "SpongeBob SquarePants for President," nor do we need candidates from the NRA, NOW, or the AARP.
If we continue to devalue the role of politics in our lives, we'll have more political viewers than voters. If more people phone an 800-number contest for president than come out to the polls, which vote counts?
The producers of "American Candidate" are right about one thing: the job specs. We do need leaders with vision, passion, intelligence, and wit. But we can't trust this to central casting.
Tune out the made-for-TV elections. Leave making fun of politicians to Jay Leno, David Letterman, and the other professionals, and let's give the informed- citizenry route a chance.
Seek information about the candidates, scrutinize what you read and hear about them. Make up your own mind. Now that's a reality show worth watching!
• William S. Klein is a Democratic political consultant. When he's not dreaming about idealism in politics, he writes satire at www.headlineupdate.com.