David Foster Wallace, in his satiric novel Infinite Jest,[1] has, as President of the U.S.A., a former Vegas crooner named Johnny Gentle. A consummate entertainer, Gentle is the “first U.S. President ever to swing his microphone around by the cord during his Inauguration speech.” He awards even cabinet members the epithet ‘babe.’

One of the points of satire in the novel is American culture’s drive for perfect and/or constant entertainment, and obviously Johnny Gentle is an extension of that. But every satire contains at least some truth.[2]

We’ve been electing entertainers in public office for decades. From Sonny Bono through Jesse Ventura right up to Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Ever four years people start rallying for Jon Stewart to run,[3] and in 2008 Stephen Colbert actually announced he would run. In possibly the state’s most intelligent and/or divisive move since withdrawing from the Union, South Carolina refused Colbert’s application and his bid was over before it really began.

But not before he released this campaign graphic that tells you everything you need to know about Stephen Colbert.

So while having former entertainers in the occasional public office is nothing new for the good ol’ U.S. of A., these days there’s a trend that worries me greatly: that those running for office must be entertaining.

Consider Sarah Palin. She quit being governor seemingly so she could star in a reality TV show, Sarah Palin’s Alaska.[4] Just as everything else she does, her purpose for starring this show seems to have been showing the American voters what she wants them to know about her when they go to the polls in 2012.[5]

Consider Donald Trump. For years Mr. Trump was mostly known as the richest man in the U.S., many people only vaguely knowing the guy in any other way. Put him on a reality TV show and now everyone knows him.[6] He announced that he was thinking about running and for a while there it seemed he would.[7]

But then another entertainer stepped in the way: President Obama. Mr. Trump was slammed again and again during the Correspondents’ Dinner as Mr. Obama reminded us that part of the reason we elected him is that he can be really, really entertaining when he wants to be.

The current crop of Republican presidential candidates is certainly less than entertaining. The newest member of the field, Tim Pawlenty, actually addressed this on Today this morning:

Matt Lauer: “People often look at you and say: ‘Is there enough charisma for Tim Pawlenty to beat Barack Obama?’ What’s your answer to that?”

Tim Pawlenty: “I’m not running for Entertainer-in-Chief. These are serious times and they need serious people with serious solutions. So if you’re looking for the loudest, or a comedian in the race, vote for somebody else. I’ll fix the country.”[8]

And you know what? For the first time ever I’m seriously considering a Republican candidate. Maybe I’m just getting old or something,[9] but just to hear a candidate acknowledge and respond against the notion that the people running our country – the people in charge of its millions of citizens – should be people who themselves are as entertaining as possible has me thinking that maybe this guy is worth considering.

But then again, that’s pretty much the only thing I know about this guy right now. Probably it’s better than I learn what he stands for and what he intends to do than to base my vote on one thing.

[1] Which yes I know I’ve talked about ad nauseum but it’s my favorite book pretty much ever and, well, frankly there are other blogs to read. Or you could read the book and find out why I talk about it all the time. (back)
[2] No evidence yet that the people of Ireland really were eating their young back when Swift wrote his A Modest Proposal, though. (back)
[3] Who told Oprah that he will never run for public office: ‘If my job became solving problems, I would suddenly become a lot less good at what I do, unless the problem being had by the country was a lack of jokes.’ (back)
[4] I’ll admit that I could be wrong about her reasons for quitting, but I haven’t seen her do anything else with her free time that she couldn’t have done whilst sitting in the office for a few more months. (back)
[5] That she hasn’t announced her candidacy yet may be a sign that the show backfired. I’ve read here and there recently that the people of Alaska are somewhat embarrassed by her and there’s almost no way to win the presidency if you can’t even carry your own state. (back)
[6] A show, I’ll point out, that stars more-or-less former entertainers entertaining the American populace in a wholly different way than they used to entertain us. (back)
[7] And he told Fox & Friends just this morning that he might still run. (back)
[8] You can view it here. (back)
[9] Lord knows I’m not suddenly rich, which is about the only other reason to vote Republican. (back)

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