At first, they laughed at Ronald Reagan: An actor as governor? Well, it's California, what do you expect. An actor as president? Never!
Here's a question likely to provoke chuckles, but it may not be a joke too far down the line: How long before we get out first reality show president?
We're seeing some early-stage test cases of the increasingly prevalent reality show genre being used as a stepping stone to political office.
Randal Pinkett, a former Rhodes scholar and one-time winner of “The Apprentice,” reportedly is being considered as New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine’s running mate. Meanwhile, Kwame Smalls, who appeared on VH1 reality shows "I Love New York 2" and "I Love Money 2," is said to be mulling a City Council run in New York. No word if he’ll campaign under his nickname: “It.”
There’s no one path to political office, though many candidates have emerged from other aspects of public life, particularly the entertainment and sports worlds.
Gopher from “The Love Boat” – Fred Grandy – made it to Congress. Baseball Hall of Famer and Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning announced Monday he won’t seek re-election, ending a political career that outlasted his diamond days. Kal Penn, star of the “Harold & Kumar” stoner flicks, catapulted from White Castle to the White House to take a gig as an aide. And let’s not forget Al Franken, the first (professional) comedian to sit in the U.S. Senate.
There’s a certain logic to this: actors and athletes enjoy name recognition and usually are known for some form of accomplishment. But the lines are blurrier in the reality TV world, where reality can be distorted, thanks to manufactured situations and creative editing. Contestants often are more notable for bad behavior than good, or for what crazy stunts they’re willing to undertake (Hard to imagine any bug eaters from “Fear Factor” sitting in the Oval Office, but times are changing).
The shows often attract characters looking for fame through notoriety – or who arrive with a measure of infamy. Ousted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, if not for the good sense of a judge, would have been a contestant on NBC’s "I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!" (Blagojevich’s wife Patti gamely took his spot in the Costa Rican jungle).
Reality TV shows may emerge as a campaign tool. Heck, even Sarah Palin appeared on one, visiting with the “American Chopper” guys earlier this year. Who knows what’s next for her – she’s got some time on her hands now that she’s stepped down as Alaska’s governor, and even her critics can’t dispute that she’s good on TV.
Pinkett and Smalls’ political careers should be worth following, perhaps more so than their reality TV stints. As the genre dominates the tube and spawns more political hopefuls, a reality check will have to come in one of the few places cameras can’t follow: the voting booth.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992.