NEW YORK — These last few weeks, far too much of the space in my head has been taken up with "The Apprentice," the newest reality show from the genius of the genre, Mark Burnett. Though I've never been particularly drawn to watch people eat disgusting things for money or form tribal councils, there was something about this particular show that grabbed my attention.
No, it wasn't the hair; I think it was that, unlike most reality shows, there seemed to be the hint of something beyond the show, that the contestants were actually competing for something extraneous to the program itself. Theoretically, at least, there was life after "The Apprentice" for the winner, who would then have a great job running one of Donald Trump's companies for one year. (Though I have no idea, at this point, what company it is, and whether or not there's the possibility of staying on after the year has passed. My instinct, quite frankly, is to encourage him or her not to sign any long-term rental agreements.)
But it's the fact that the show could call itself "the ultimate job interview" that drew me in. Given that, there were a few things that seemed somewhat odd to me: the first, of course, was that I'm not sure exactly how Donald Trump can actually fire someone from a job that they haven't yet gotten. (That said, "You're fired!" certainly sounds more dramatic than "Your qualifications, though quite satisfactory, have been deemed to be insufficient for our current workplace needs!")
But I'm also fascinated by the fact that, for a job interview, business experience seems to be an entirely irrelevant concern. Yes, all of the candidates have some form of business experience, but one might reasonably expect to be skeptical about having a copier salesman run, say, a company involved with food services, just as if you were hiring a head of sales, you might not think that a restaurant owner would be your first choice. That's one of the reasons that Trump and the contestants alike play down the particular jobs they do, since you never know how the fit between ultimate winner and job title is going to fit. Still, you have to be a bit concerned, since generalized, all-purpose business experience is a lot less useful than actually knowing how to do the job you're hired for.
Now, I don't particularly care so much about the success or failure of this particular job search (and I suspect that Donald Trump, for whom this is of course a massively successful publicity stunt, feels the same way - another reason for the winner not to get too comfortable), but I bring all this up because there's a much more important ultimate job interview going on in 2004 for an office slightly more important than running one of Donald Trump's companies. Even Trump might agree with that.
Just like in "The Apprentice," the presidential candidates - to what may be an unprecedented degree - are failing to stress their experience. Usually, of course, stressing your experience is precisely the kind of thing that an incumbent wants to do; but given the nagging questions about intelligence that swirl around Bush's decision to take the country to war with Iraq, and the nagging questions about intelligence that swirl around Bush's decisions to cut taxes which have helped to create the biggest budget deficit in American history, it may be less surprising that Bush wants to give the whole experience thing a bit of a pass.
What may be more surprising, though, is that Senator John Kerry seems to be doing something pretty similar. Admittedly, we do hear about experiences of his - but the vast majority of them seem to be about his undeniably distinguished service in Vietnam, less his tenure in the Senate. Sure, I'd be proud to have a war hero as my commander-in-chief, but I'd also be proud to have a member of Congress who worked hard for his constituents as my president.
According to a recent article in The New York Times, it seems much of Kerry's distinction in the Senate has come from investigations and prosecutions rather than proposing and passing legislation. Then again, with financial scandal and tax avoidance skyrocketing on the domestic front, and terrorism and nuclear proliferation at what seem like all-time highs internationally, it wouldn't be so bad to have someone in charge who was used to getting to the bottom of things. Especially in contrast to an administration whose reticence for investigation and transparency, from energy policy task forces to intelligence investigations to leaks to the press about government agents, has reached embarrassing lows. Why aren't we hearing more about this John Kerry?
Maybe because, like in reality TV, there's been a decision that biography matters more than policy. Maybe because, like in reality TV, Kerry is out there talking about it, but the media that edits and presents Kerry gives us what it thinks we'll be most interested in hearing. Or maybe Kerry knows that Democrats are much more excited about an anti-Bush candidate than they are about the specifics of Kerry; people in caucuses and primaries are voting for Kerry in droves or reasons of electability despite, at times, agreeing more closely with other Democrats' policies.
But another lesson from "The Apprentice" might be worth attending to: eventually, someone will emerge triumphant from the ultimate job interview. But their future and success with Trump will depend greatly on whether they've simply outlasted fifteen other people or they've been chosen for who they are. Kerry, hopefully, will not only be a candidate who's against the other guy, but will also be someone Americans will become excited about. And showing off his experience, as well as his biography, is vital to achieving that goal.