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One Way to Body-Slam the Financing of Campaigns

November 22, 2000|REUVEN FRANK | Reuven Frank was president of NBC News from 1968 to 1973 and from 1982 to 1984

The governor of Minnesota, a sovereign state of the United States of America inhabited by more than 4.5 million human beings and also much cattle, has been engaged by the National Broadcasting Co. and the World Wrestling Federation to provide analysis of a heightened form of professional football called XFL, which will begin games and telecasts in February.

All will remember that NBC was outbid by CBS for the TV rights to the half of NFL football that the Fox network did not have. It seemed at the time like a shrewd business move, given the huge escalations in professional football's demands.

But, after smaller-than-expected audiences for the Olympics and other cherished projects, the network felt it had to do something to recover. The answer was XFL, rock-'em, sock-'em football supposedly like in the old days. And grabbing Jesse "The Body" Ventura, once a lead player in professional wrestling exhibitions, seemed like a coup.

But Ventura is now the governor of an American state. The newspaper opinionaters and the cable "gaboisie" are outraged. They see this as a further blurring of the already fading boundary between politics and tomfoolery. Others, however, may view this development as opening new vistas and offering new resources to the exercise of the processes of American government.

The problem of financing campaigns for election is unlikely to be solved if the solution is up to the very people who have benefited, and intend to benefit, from the same system that everyone else wants to change. A congressman who is sure his reelection depends on special interests to defray his ballooning campaign costs is hardly the one to show those interests the door.

But, say, if the Associated Chrysanthemum Growers of his district were to get him a spot on their network megabuck quiz show, "Who Wants To Be a Gazzillionaire," and sees to it that he gets the easy questions, the kind everyone at home can answer, he might win enough money to pay for his next campaign without feeling beholden to one flower as against another.

Being paid to be on sponsored TV programs need not bind any officeholder in his attitudes or the performance of his duties. As Gov. Ventura said: "I don't think I'll have any handcuffs on me or my opinions. I'll be free to express my opinions, whether they be right or wrong." Thomas Jefferson could not have put it any better.

Politicians belong on television. Minnesota's governor will reach more of the American electorate in one afternoon's commenting on eye-gouging, shin-snapping extreme football than in a month of talking to Larry King and Tim Russert, or a year of shaking hands in diners at six in the morning. Or a decade of town hall meetings.

As for the voting process itself, the success of the so-called reality program "Survivor" tells us all we need to know about how to pick winners as well as how to do it under the watchful eyes of tens of millions of the citizenry following every move from their living rooms. No need for observers from each party, for boards of election or assessment.

The ballots cast by the members of "Survivor," as one after another they were eliminated, leaving the undisputed winner, were marked clearly, so we all could see, with the writing out of a name. No electric machines developed by Edison himself and unchanged since; no punching holes or reading names in the uncertain light of makeshift booths; no chads, no dimples, no unwanted pregnancies.

Instead of primaries in the chill of New Hampshire, Steve Forbes and Alan Keyes and Lamar Alexander and Elizabeth Dole (or even Bob) could face off against each other on equal footing without most of them dropping out before the first snowflake in Iowa because they had been out-moneyed.

Even though nothing may come of it, we now know that most Americans feel uncomfortable about the part money plays in the way we choose our leaders. We might prefer judging them by how well they can endure life on a deserted island.

A well-regarded public official once decided he did not want to run for president because he could not bear the thought of all those nights in Holiday Inns. It is true we demand too much of our candidates in the way of physical wear and tear, late planes, hurried meals, bad weather, hostile crowds and a surrender of self for more than a year. Rather than endless nights in Holiday Inns, we might better judge tomorrow's leaders by their ability to roast rats, broil beetles and saute slugs. Anyone who can survive "Survivor" is a cinch to keep his cool for four years in Washington.

Furthermore, it is clear from the Nielsen ratings that eight weeks on "Survivor" will make any politician better known to the voters than a year of primaries, caucuses, conventions and debates. The candidates will be close to the people. And that's what we want, isn't it?

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