Send In The Clowns

election 2002, campaign buttons AP / CBS

TV talent scouts recruit at political conventions now. In his latest Against the Grain commentary, CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer says this is bad news for voters, and candidates.


The primary purpose of primaries now seems to be recruiting hosts for news talk shows.

Picking candidates is secondary.

How else does one explain Carol Moseley-Braun's freshly announced campaign for the Democratic nomination?

For those of you who blinked and missed the extensive coverage of her launch, let's review. Ms. Moseley-Braun is the only African-American woman to serve in the U.S. Senate, an impressive accomplishment for sure.

But after one term, the voters of Illinois dumped her, big time. They preferred a complete unknown, by more than a million votes. That's probably because her brief tenure set a modern record for ethical and financial dust-ups.

There was the little issue of her pocketing inheritance money that was owed to Medicaid; there were the charges of sexual harassment leveled at her fiancé/campaign manager; there was the FEC audit of her campaign expenditures; and there was the meeting with the military dictator of Nigeria.

Despite the milestones and infamy, Moseley-Braun's fame was fleeting. Her name ID today is roughly the same as Edward Platt. Platt played The Chief on "Get Smart." In the '60s. Remember?

But Moseley-Braun is hardly the only fringe candidate in the ring (or should I say the three rings?).

Al Sharpton of Tawanna Brawley fame is in. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, former boy mayor of Cleveland, is in. Gary Hart, back from the S.S. Monkey Business, might jump in.

In this field, guys most people have never heard of – like Edwards and Dean – are the heavies. Lieberman, Gephardt and Kerry of Massachusetts are epic titans.

President Bush, being the incumbent, doesn't face primary pests. Yet.

But he did last time. Remember Gary Bauer? Remember Alan Keyes?

Alan Keyes is actually an important footnote to the history of American political campaigns. In 1992, Keyes ran for the Senate in Maryland and paid himself, from donated campaign funds, a salary -- $8,483 a month.

Keyes was the first to make explicit what had long been true -- running for office can be a decent job.

Last year, the FEC ratified the Keyes Principle and made clear that it was perfectly legal for candidates to pay themselves salaries. So expect to see lots more Gary Bauer's and Carol Moseley-Braun's – in Congressional campaigns too.

But Careers In Campaigns can really lead to big money after the campaigns (in some cases, after the purgatory of being in office for awhile). Candidates, it appears, make for great talk show hosts.

After Alan Keyes displayed his personal demons for months and months on CSPAN-2 and in presidential debates, MSNBC signed him to host a scream show. It didn't work out real well.

After Pat Buchanan ran for president, again, in 2000, MSNBC signed him to host a show. Buchanan has gone through the run-and-talk cycle several times, like Pat Robertson.

After Jesse Ventura stopped being governor of Minnesota, MSNBC signed him to host a show.

After Oliver North lost a Senate campaign, he found a radio talk show.

Even Bob Dole got some TV work after his run.

(In fact, there is a semi-serious school of thought that thinks the Democrats' biggest problem now is that they don't have enough colorful cads to star on the squawk-circuit. James Carville can't carry the whole load. Jesse Jackson's show never took off.)

Could it be that the, shall we say, low barriers to entry in modern campaigns could be discouraging to some serious candidates, the Colin Powell's of the world? Would you want to debate Alan Keyes and Steve Forbes? Al Sharpton and Gary Hart? Would you want to watch?

It's early 2003 and the election is 22 months away. Yet Campaign 2004 has already been in full swing for months. Dick Gephardt has announced six or seven times, John Edwards at least a dozen times. We've already been through two medical crises.

American campaigns are the longest in the world. And unlike other countries, we pretend that our fringe candidates are serious candidates. It would be rude to do otherwise.

Length and silliness are not an attractive combination. It's not good for candidates or voters.

Bring back the smoke-filled rooms.

Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is Editorial Director of CBSNews.com based in Washington.

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