Joe Millionaire for president

BY KATIE BIBER

For the many Americans convinced that reality television is the best way to choose wives, husbands, millionaires and American idols, FX will soon be taking the genre a step further. Beginning in January 2004 the new show American Candidate will allow viewers, via telephone and Internet, to whittle down a group of political wanna-bes and choose the People’s Candidate for president. The O-Town of politicians!

Perhaps the opening scene will feature the candidates racing one another to grab the best budget charts and standard presidential-looking red ties. The weakest would have to give a speech on Social Security lockboxes while wearing a cape and a top hat. We may even get to see one of them kill a chicken with his bare hands, just to show us he’s a regular guy.

Certainly the show is correct in rather pointedly showing that our process for choosing candidates is just as driven by pseudo-events and media manipulation as American Candidate will be driven by selective editing and good lighting. Sometimes we’d learn a lot more about a candidate by forcing him through a round of Fear Factor than by watching him at a Republican pancake breakfast in Iowa.

There’s an important difference between the world of fakery that will be created by American Candidate and the highly-orchestrated events of the regular campaign trail, however. Remember when the entire world heard then-Governor Bush call New York Times reporter Adam Clymer a “major league asshole”? No matter how many eager young staffers a politician hires, she cannot prevent those bits of real life from exposing themselves on occasion. It is impossible to plan every detail. Just ask Bob Dole, who fell off the stage at an event in California in 1996. For days the pundits pondered whether he was too feeble to lead the country.

Not so for American Candidate. All of those very real moments could end up on the cutting room floor. Just as Survivor contestants are shown through the lens of the editing process, American Candidate participants will undoubtedly be painted as a small group of producers would like viewers to see them. Absolutely everything will be controlled. Producers will decide who looks like the villain, and producers will have a hand in who is attractive enough to win.

Thus far, the show’s creators haven’t expressed a particular distaste for Republican or Democratic candidates, nor have they claimed they will draw first-time participants to the political process. They also admit that their chosen candidate will have little chance of meeting the extensive state-by-state ballot requirements necessary for third-party candidacy, not to mention raising the necessary funds. It turns out they have something else in mind.

“[T]heir ideas will become part of the discourse,” executive producer R.J. Cutler recently said to Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz. “The person who wins this show is going to emerge as a real potential leader in this country. That’s triumph enough for the show.”

Again, he has a point. Injecting a little bit of variety into the candidate pool forces the old candidates to talk about new ideas. Ross Perot is primarily responsible for forcing the candidates in 1992 to talk balanced budget, while both would probably have avoided it without him.

But Perot’s personality was not painted by producers. His candidacy was the antithesis of American Candidate — it was nothing but bumbling humanity. His infomercials were not edited, and even when he looked a little silly people liked him. Maybe that’s why they liked him.

It remains to be seen whether the same will be true for FX’s new show. It may very well fall victim to the same sentiment that poo-poohs Sean Penn for taking fact-finding trips to Iraq. Americans tend to raise eyebrows when B-list actors dabble in politics. Stick with your own profession, the pundits often say with a snort. It’s hard for stars to gain legitimacy.

It will therefore be interesting what happens when American Candidate is over and the “Chosen One” takes to the campaign trail to talk about her ideas. I’m betting America will see that she isn’t quite as producers portrayed her. And that’s when the real business of choosing a candidate can start to take place.

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