Ready For Your Close-Up, Senator

The results from the elections are in. Political careers have been forged and destroyed. Yet, there's one United States Senator who decided not to run for reelection Tuesday, but he's not out of a job. Actually, he still has two jobs. In fact, you can see Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson playing a part on television's "Law and Order."

Sen. Thompson is the first member of Congress to appear as a TV show regular while still in office. He will be one of Tennessee's Senators until Jan. 3, but he's had the acting job for months.

I respect his decision not to run for re-election and his right to go into whatever career he desires after leaving office. But why couldn't he wait until then? What was so important about putting on make-up and pretending to be someone else that he had to grab the job while still a member of the Senate? Is he really serving the people of Tennessee to the best of his ability while he's worrying about how his hair looks and is busy memorizing lines like, "We better win this case?"

What if he has an emergency at both jobs at the same time? Maybe there's an actress who wants to re-shoot a scene because it didn't favor her good side on the same day that the Senate has to decide how to respond to Iraq. Who is he going to let down — the people of Tennessee and the country, or his producers and that pretty co-star? And what if the script asks him to take a position on an issue that is the opposite of what he believes in? Will his constituents see him spouting liberal ideas one night as a make-believe D.A. and conservative ones the next day as a real Senator?

Something that Thompson doesn't seem to get is that traditionally in America, you go into politics after you're an entertainer, not the other way around. Ronald Reagan didn't appear in "Bedtime for Bonzo" after he was President. Fred Grandy didn't use Congress to launch his career as "Gopher" on "The Love Boat." Shirley Temple wasn't that cute little girl after she was Ambassador to the United Nations. Sonny didn't find Cher after he left the Congress. And internationally, let's look at Dingdong Avanzado of the Philippines. In case a few of you aren't familiar with him, he was a popular singer before being elected counselor of Quezon City's 3rd District. I say what's good enough for Dingdong is good enough for Thompson.

There is something undignified about former high public officials going into show business. Former statesmen and stateswomen should do things that are, well, stately. Jimmy Carter getting the Nobel Peace Prize seems more appropriate for an ex-President than if he had beaten out Ray Romano for the Emmy. LBJ didn't go on to star in "Dallas" after his Presidency. President Ford didn't become a clumsy next-door neighbor on a sitcom. I don't think we'll ever see Janet Reno and Jeb Bush trying to solve a crime while pretending to ignore the sexual tension on an episode of "CSI: Miami." And would a former Senate Majority Leader ever lower himself to do commercials for things like Pepsi or Viagra? Okay, that was a bad example, but generally show business careers come before political careers.

But now, going into television after politics could become a trend. Will former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani become a regular on "The King of Queens?" Will Jesse Helms play a cantankerous grandfather who comes to visit a TV family in the pilot and ends up staying for the run of the series? When he retires, will John Glenn star in the next "Star Trek" series? Could anyone even count the number of politicians who would want to be in a show called "Survivor?"

I guess I have to accept that some politicians will become entertainers. Maybe politics isn't a bad training ground for show business after all. Maybe the two professions aren't all that different. In one, you have to say lines that you don't believe in written for you by other people, worry about how you look on-camera, and you may have to stab anyone in the back who gets in your way. And then, there's show business.

Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover.

By Lloyd Garver