Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Presidential Idol

Tonight is the final episode of the American Idol season. I am not a fan of the show, but appreciate its appeal. It occurs to me that the Idol process is underutilized. I propose that it be extended to politics – call it "Presidential Idol."

Neal Gabler wrote a book awhile back called Life: The Movie, in which he contended that politics is now entertainment. We think of politicians and their foibles the way we think of movie stars or rock musicians and theirs. The 24-hour news cycle, the need to hold viewers, means that political coverage is about who’s up, who’s down, who had the play of the day, etc. have clearly given us a different kind of politics and politician. The book was written during the Clinton years, when we got far more for our politico-entertainment dollar than we have a right to expect, but there is still something to his thesis, I think.

And so I propose that American Idol be extended to politics. Perhaps the president could be selected through a year-long series of elimination shows. The Ross Perots and the Mike Gravels could be knocked out, amid great hilarity, in the early weeks, and then the serious contenders could step up, plucked from obscurity in Mississippi or Montana. The panelist of judges would perform much the same role that George Stephanopoulos and Tim Russert do now. The final rounds could be carried out through a competition in which contestants sing, dance, identify (or mis-identify) world leaders and work through minor inconsistencies in the answer they gave to some question eight weeks ago and the one they gave two weeks later. If necessary, we could hold the first rounds in Iowa and New Hampshire, before taking the show on the road. In fact, electing a president this way would make it considerably easier to break the Iowa/NH stranglehold; simply have the production company decide on its own to move the early rounds around every four years.

This proposal would even increase voter turnout, which I’m told is a good thing. Repeatedly dialing the phone late into the night until you get a chance to vote for Hillary! (or Barack!, or, most tantalizingly, John!) is just as good a way of voting as voting by mail, as is done now in Oregon. Sure, there are constitutional and campaign-finance issues, but those can be finessed away as they usually are. And if there are worries about whether it will make good television, perhaps they can try it with some state legislative district in flyover country first. How much worse could it be (and how different is it, really) from what we have now?



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