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Time to Make Voting a Prime Issue

Does FX's 'American Candidate' mock the presidential process? Nah. The electoral system has already done that.


Granted, the idea seems sleazy and commercial: using a reality TV show to pick a presidential candidate. But have you checked out democracy lately?

In the age of television and short attention spans, the real process of choosing a president is every bit as slick, calculated, commercial and creepy as the show that cable channel FX is planning for January 2004.

Anybody who immediately dismisses the idea of the "American Candidate" show hasn't checked into what the presidential election system has become.

Those of us who have slogged through the frigid New Hampshire comedy of "the nation's first presidential primary," the quaint cornfield drama of the Iowa caucuses or the aw-shucks charm of the gunnysack races of the summer state fair circuit know there has to be a better way to choose a president.

Every four years, the forced march of the U.S. presidential selection process turns up citizenry who tell us political reporters that they're fed up with the lousy choices they get on election day. "I don't like [believe, trust, respect] any of them," is a refrain repeated from coast to coast.

Given the crummy selection process, it's surprising that voter participation--only about half of those eligible vote in presidential elections--isn't even lower.

Then consider the debacle of the 2000 Florida vote counting. Or the impenetrable idiocy of the electoral college that makes a mockery of the one man, one vote concept.

Add to that the obscene spending on TV ads and our tax dollars that go toward presidential campaigns--together totaling a cool $500 million in 2000 by some estimates.

Clearly, there is plenty of room for improvement.

So, back to the "American Candidate" show. Potential contestants (anyone who could legally be president) submit an application, a 30-minute video sales pitch and signatures of 50 supporters.

A panel of experts picks 100 finalists who then compete through debates and such tests as fund-raising and getting on state ballots. A point system, audience participation and telephone viewer voting end in a season finale in which the winner is chosen in Washington, D.C., on July 4, 2004.

FX President Peter Liguori says contestants will have to decide for themselves whether they actually want to run. FX won't pay for their participation on the show or for their campaign.

One of the creators of "American Candidate" is R.J. Cutler, who produced the 1993 documentary "The War Room," which chronicled Bill Clinton's race for the presidential nomination.

Cutler told me that "there is a yearning for real leadership that people can be passionate for" and that his show hopes to tap into this. Citing the success of the "American Idol" reality show, Cutler says, "I would hope America cares at least as much about selecting its next president as it does about choosing an entertainment icon."

Liguori says "American Candidate" will not make a "mockery out of the electoral system."

Judging from some of the inhabitants of the White House and the way they got there, the current electoral system has already done that to itself.

Ellen Warren is a senior correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune company.

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