During Monday’s debut of CNN’s "Parker Spitzer," we learned that disgraced former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer might be a regular guy, after all: He likes NASCAR.
But perhaps more telling, he all-but swore off another kind of race, suggesting he’s done with seeking political office. “I'm in recovery," Spitzer told co-host Kathleen Parker. "This is Step 1, I promise."
Time will tell whether the national show is Step 1 to a new career in punditry or the first strides toward another campaign in a country where NASCAR, distrust of Wall Street and good second-chance stories play well with many voters.
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Spitzer is just the latest potential political comeback kid to notch a paying TV gig, joining Fox News employees Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee as possible candidates-in-waiting with powerful platforms and generous paychecks. Even Reality TV star Donald Trump spent Tuesday floating his own presidential trial balloon – a day after declaring he had nothing to do with a poll gauging his chances as a GOP candidate.
How any of this will unfold is unclear – but it’s certain we’ve reached a strange point where a politician could go almost straight from the boob tube to the White House.
TV and the presidency, of course, have been intertwined for decades, as we were reminded by the recent 50th anniversary of the Kennedy-Nixon debate. Most people who heard the debate on the radio believed Richard Nixon won, while a majority of those who watched on TV declared John Kennedy the champ over a sickly looking Nixon.
Knowing how to put on a good show counts, no matter what the medium. Ronald Reagan, a movie star in his younger years, used his communication skills to launch a second life in politics. But at least The Great Communicator was three decades removed from “Bedtime for Bonzo” before he started bunking in the White House.
Political careers can take off a lot faster these days, thanks to a 24-hour news cycle often driven by celebrity and the wonders of the Web.
Barack Obama, a telegenic first-term U.S. Senator from Illinois, was greeted like a rock star on the presidential campaign trail in 2008, bolstered by a strong Internet operation that helped draw the crowds.
His potential 2012 presidential rival Palin has gone on to further blur the lines between celebrity and politics. She largely avoids direct contact with the press, communicating largely through her Facebook and Twitter accounts, her Fox News spots and carefully stage-managed appearances in front of adoring crowds.
She’s set to debut next month as star of a new TLC series about Alaska and recently made a Reality TV stop to cheer on her daughter, Bristol, a contestant on “Dancing With the Stars.” Palin notably did her own two-step with Fox colleague Glenn Beck, another possible TV-spun political candidate, at his August “Restoring Honor” rally.
The former Alaska governor also is a key supporter of another creation of the boob tube: GOP Delaware U.S. Senate hopeful and Tea Party darling Christine (“I’m not a witch”) O’Donnell.
O’Donnell doesn’t seem to have held a job anytime recently, but she can point to 22 appearances on “Politically Incorrect” for first putting her in the spotlight. “I created her,” the old show’s host Bill Maher said last month as he played the now-infamous 1999 clip of O’Donnell declaring she “dabbled into witchcraft.”
O’Donnell has come off, at least in the national press, as an airhead – sort of the Snooki of electoral politics. If she doesn’t get elected, O’Donnell seems a natural for Reality TV. Maybe the New Jersey native can join “Jersey Shore,” and bring her celibacy crusade to the hedonistic cast.
Come to think of it, Snooki might have some electoral potential herself: Her bold stance on the tanning tax (she’s against it) drew the attention of President Obama and Arizona Sen. John McCain. Perhaps she’ll declare her candidacy to become mayor of the Jersey Shore. Just imagine the fist-pumping throngs at the campaign beer blasts…
If all that sounds ridiculous, it’s not much less absurd than Trump, a man of accomplishment to be sure, believing he could easily translate his blunt TV boardroom approach to the Oval Office. But let’s remember that showman Trump knows the value of publicity, especially with “The Apprentice” in the midst of its latest season.
The voters will be doing the hiring and firing – just be sure to check out the candidates’ TV shows before casting ballots.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.