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Mediaticians

Political career begets media career begets political career. For today's breed of personal-identity professionals, public office and punditry are interchangeable career paths.

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The big discussion in the Buchanan family over the past few weeks was probably not just about Pat's decision to take a leave from Crossfire and enter the Republican primaries but about the desire of Bay Buchanan, his sister, campaign manager, and ideological soul mate, to stay in her job as a commentator on MSNBC. You can bet there was some tension there: Pat arguing for the moral imperative of waging the true campaign, Bay countering that the point of a campaign (especially a quixotic one) is to get your views heard -- so why bother if you already have a guaranteed time slot (certainly a more comfortable place to air your views than on the campaign trail)?

Within the Forbes family (corporate and otherwise), similar issues are undoubtedly being raised as Steve Forbes gets ready to make his second run for the Republican presidential nomination. Beyond worrying about how to pay for what might be the most expensive hobby of all time, reasonable voices within the company are hard-pressed to understand what greater influence Steve Forbes thinks he can have as a failed candidate than as the owner of a media empire. Others in the company, however, make the point that even a failed presidential campaign can be justified by what it returns in general branding value to the company as a whole. (The cover story in the current Forbes is "How Today's Hottest Celebrities Build Value in a Name.") The cost of the race, in other words, could arguably come out of an overall marketing budget (although the IRS might not yet understand such a forward-looking promotion strategy).

In another political household, the discussion, I'll wager, is not principally about the odds of winning the New York Senate race but about whether a Senate seat will be worth more or less than all of the myriad media opportunities that will shortly become available. This isn't just a hard-cash calculation, either (although, obviously, with tens of millions in the balance, that's got to figure in), but, politics not being what it used to be, about whether a media career might not be a more effective way to foster Hillary Clinton's political, legislative, and even historical goals.

Perhaps the most notable campaign launch last week (other than new George columnist Alfonse D'Amato's brainstorm that JFK Jr. run for mayor) was the push for George Stephanopoulos's political memoir. Stephanopoulos, using bookstores and Newsweek's cover, is able to pursue his own policy ideas, enhance his personal brand, and monetize (as they say on Wall Street) the equity he has already built up in being George Stephanopoulos. At the same time, Stephanopoulos is making himself into a kind of Jesse "the Body" Ventura for New York. His tsunami of media exposure sets him up as a credible contender for the next suitable statewide political opening to his liking -- surely the Senate race, if Hillary doesn't run.

Well, it makes sense. Media and politics are the two personal-identity professions. Your key asset is the number of people who know you. The more fire in the belly you have for personal recognition -- i.e., the more that recognition gives you satisfaction and pleasure -- the more obviously suited you are to both a media and a political career.

Increasingly, a media career is replacing a legal career for politicians as both launch pad and out-of-office resting spot (this also says something about how unpopular legal careers have become). But this is not just a point about using media power to influence or corrupt the political system (in the way, say, that Murdoch is accused of using it); it's as much about using politics to get into the media. Clearly, among the better ways to jump up the media ladder swiftly is to get yourself involved with a high-profile campaign (win or lose).

More and more, in other words, media and politics become interrelated jobs, part of the same career plan.

Watching European television, you can still get a glimpse of how it used to be: On a French or Italian talk show, a politician is formal, uncomfortable, condescending, abstract, poorly coiffed. (Then, too, when European politicians write books, they tend to be treatiselike rather than gossipy and anecdotal. Foreign pols lack a wide range of media talents.)

It's not just that U.S. politicians are slick and media-savvy -- think of Bob Barr and that mustache. It's that the rise of talk radio and all-news television has blurred the difference between on- and off-air life. The basic barrier between politics and media -- that media requires performance skills -- has dramatically fallen. A central effect of the parade of talking heads and the carnival of daytime oddballs is that now everybody looks good on television. There's almost no behavior, no affect, no tic, no level of hemming and hawing and inarticulateness, that doesn't come off as perfectly normal on a television or radio call-in show -- it's just life. McLuhan's cool medium is an obsolete notion. Or rather, now goofy is cool, too. Nixon would come off just fine.

Of course, as with any other career move, it's easy to screw it up. Susan Molinari, the New York congresswoman, pretended to be something she wasn't (i.e., an anchorperson). Jesse Jackson, pretending to be a talk-show host, has had a hard time attracting an audience to Both Sides With Jesse Jackson on CNN.

On the other hand, rather than announcing that he was leaving the White House to become a national television commentator and to write a celebrity best-seller, George Stephanopoulos said he was taking up a teaching position at Columbia, his alma mater, and writing a book of reflections on his Washington experience. In truth, of course, his real career move was to turn himself into a national television commentator and to write a celebrity best-seller. But the camera likes the haimish Stephanopoulos (the mop-top sincerity and apparent lack of media guile of a would-be academic) in a way that it would probably not have liked a media-ready Stephanopoulos (just as we prefer an obstreperous James Carville to a well-behaved one).

The need to be yourself -- to come as you are -- could present difficulties for a Hillary media crossover. She is so queenly now. Scandal has turned her into porcelain. She might be one of the few people who would be more at home in the Senate than on television. Certainly, though, if she forgoes a Senate race, she will take up high-profile good works against the background of a series of media deals -- from a network relationship to magazine cover stories to international broadcast rights to a multi-book deal (autobiography, policy book, children's book co-written with Chelsea). Whatever her immediate career move, over the next fifteen to twenty years she will make several more crossovers between media and political life. But count on it: What she will not do again is practice law.

It may be that the one thing that will save politics from itself (from its inefficiencies, sentimentalities, and personal legal bills) is its ability to provide swift entrée into the media world.

Simply, if you run for office -- even just announce you're running -- the media covers you; if the media covers you, then you're eligible for a job in the media. Not to mention that a political campaign offers a perfectly respectable pretext for asking your friends and family and professional associates for money (not a loan, either, but cash just for the taking) with which you can intensively work to raise your Q-rating in a given market over a short period of time. It's no-lose.

If I were advising a young person on how to jump-start a career in the media, I'd say: Just run for political office, raise as much money as you can, make as big a splash as possible, then apply for a drive-time slot.

You don't even have to be the candidate. Proximity does it, too. Not just Stephanopoulos and Bay Buchanan but Carville, Mary Matalin, Ed Rollins, Chris Matthews, Tim Russert, and Dick Morris, among a growing list, have turned jobs as political operatives into big-money media careers. None of these characters would have been likely to make his or her way up from, say, a mid-market station to national prominence without the boost of the political limelight.

I have an out-of-town lawyer friend whose political campaigns for local and statewide office I've been dragooned into contributing to for years. Just recently he lost his bid for a congressional seat. Now my friend is negotiating for his own drive-time show, inspired, he says, by Jesse "the Body" Ventura and his career trajectory from pro wrestler to radio-talk-show host to governor to a recent $500,000 book advance.

"That's where the power is" is why, JFK said, he wanted to be president. But finding the power now is not that simple. It's more free-floating. You wouldn't want to be just a politician anymore; you want to saturate. It's the four-four rule. The public has to hear your name four times a day for four weeks before it recognizes you. The book, the tour, the network contract, the pundit slot, the primary race, even time served in office are tools of a new trade. Public person -- the ultimate entrepreneur.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com


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