Tuesday, August 5, 2003

Ventura won - could Springer?

Celebrity politicians part of new breed

By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Jesse Ventura was a pro wrestler, then a mayor, then a governor. He now wants to be a talk show host.

Jerry Springer was a mayor, a television anchor, then a talk show host. And his show has more in common with WWF Smackdown than Meet the Press.

Both are famous, populist politicians with a history of outlandish behavior. They are both "politainers."

Which raises the question: If Ventura got elected, why can't Springer?

The answer, analysts say, is as complicated as it is fascinating. And it raises questions about the impact of the mass media on culture, the nature of celebrity and the future of American politics.

As soon as Springer started talking about a run for the U.S. Senate - an exploratory phase that ends Wednesday when Springer will announce in Columbus whether he will run - the comparison was inevitable.

Springer, as one Columbus voter told the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, is "like Jesse Ventura on crack."

He's the "perfect celebrity," said John M. Orman, a political science professor at Fairfield University in Connecticut and the co-author of Celebrity Politics. He's a former politician, a news anchor, and internationally known television star. He's got books, movies - even a CD of off-tune rockabilly songs.

Ventura had action figures, movies, books - and is working on a talk show to debut on MSNBC sometime this fall.

But the similarities go beyond their screen credits. Both hope to transform American politics by getting disaffected voters - young people, independents and people simply fed up with career politicians - to vote.

Through a publicist, Ventura declined to comment on a Springer candidacy. Asked in 1999 on Fox News Sunday about what he thought of a possible Springer campaign, he had this to say:

"Well, I don't think of it, to be blunt," he said. "But let's remember this is America, the United States, and that's what makes us the great country we are is that essentially anyone can run for public office. Now, whether anyone can win is another story entirely."

If that sounds like a lukewarm endorsement of a Springer campaign, Springer has been very generous in his assessment of Ventura's ability as a talk show host.

"Oh, I think he'd be great at it," Springer said on CNN's Crossfire last year. "First of all, he represents a point of view that just isn't around with talk shows.... So I think he kind of reflects what I call the 'NASCAR vote,' those people that are outside traditional politics. He could be very good. He's very personable ...

"I think he could make that transition. He went from wrestling to the governorship, and now he's going back to what I do for a living, wrestling."

Getting attention

The fact that Springer and Ventura are asked about each other on the national talking-head circuit is one sure sign of their celebrity status - and their ability to command attention from local, national and international media.

David Schultz, a professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., is a preeminent Ventura-watcher who is credited with being the only analyst in Minnesota to predict his 1998 victory. It was he who coined the term "politainer" to describe someone whose identities as a politician and an entertainer are inseparable.

And while he said the parallels between Springer and Ventura are clear, there are many obstacles Springer has that Ventura did not:

Different dynamics: Ventura watched twp major-party candidates get involved in a mud-kicking contest, and in a three-way race got enough protest votes from turned-off voters to win. He portrayed himself as a true alternative to the indistinguishable "Republicratic" candidates, who he said were as different as Coke and Pepsi.

Springer would run as a liberal candidate for the Democratic nomination, going against State Sen. Eric Fingerhut of Cleveland. If Springer wins the March primary, he then would be in a likely two-way race against Republican George Voinovich.

Different states: Minnesota has a much bigger independent streak, even though voters there are much more ideological.

"Ohio has very traditional, organizational politics," said John C. Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. Parties are still strong here, as are labor unions and other interest groups. Compared to other states, resumes are more important than positions or personalities.

"Ohio is a much more pragmatic state, and Springer needs to convince people that he can do a better job," Green said.

More voters: Minnesota's day-of-election registration laws made it easy for non-traditional and disaffected voters - the kind that Springer is counting on - to walk in and vote for Ventura. Ohio voters must register at least 30 days in advance.

"Unless Jerry does advance work to get them registered, he may not get their votes," Schultz said.

Also, Minnesota's voter turnout is the highest in the nation. Almost 69 percent of eligible voters there went to the polls in 2000. Ohio was 62 percent. Springer is convinced that if he could get everyone to vote, he'd win in a landslide.

Name recognition: Both Ventura and Springer have high name recognition, but Springer's negatives are much higher. An Ohio Poll conducted in March by the University of Cincinnati found that he had the highest unfavorable rating - 71 percent - in the history of the poll.

"He's not liked by conservatives and not liked by Bible-bangers. Jesse was able to draw from the right to win," Schultz said.

Comparing resumes

But Springer also has skills Ventura doesn't.

Springer speaks in clear, grammatical sentences honed by two decades as a news anchor and talk show host. Reporters find him accessible and engaging. He thinks fast on his feet. Springer is also better educated. He graduated from Tulane University and Northwestern Law School, while Ventura attended a community college in Minnesota.

"I suppose there are surface comparisons," said Dale Butland, a Columbus-based political adviser to Springer. "Maybe there is sort of an authentic aura around the two of them. What gives Jerry the appeal is his authenticity. He's never tried to be something he's not."

But Butland said the differences are bigger than the similarities. For one, Springer's political resume is much longer and more impressive, having been a mayor of a major American city. He was Cincinnati's mayor from 1978-1979 and also served on its council from 1971 to 1981.

Still, Springer also spent the last 12 years hosting a television show that even he admits is sleazy.

Is Oprah next?

Orman, the author of Celebrity Politics, said candidates like Springer and Ventura ultimately result in a dumbing down of political discourse. Now, a candidate almost has to be a celebrity before anyone in the media will pay attention to what he has to say.

"It's a negative trend, but there's no turning back. It's going to get worse and worse every year," Orman said. "One of these days we're going to have an election for president between a TV sitcom star, a standup comedian and an NFL quarterback."

But defenders of celebrity politicians say the trend is actually closer to what the founders of the republic had in mind: the citizen-legislator. Like Ventura, Springer actually had some experience in public service.

"Even if he didn't, I don't know why we couldn't consider him a qualified and legitimate candidate," said John Wodele, himself a former small-town mayor, radio talk show host and Ventura's former spokesman.

To be sure, entertainers aren't the first celebrities to blaze trails into politics.

Two local examples: U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., was a Hall of Fame baseball player. Former Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, was the first American to orbit the earth.

But critics say at least yesterday's celebrities often had some relationship to public service. Today's celebrities often have no more going for them than their fame itself.

That fame gives them one advantage over other candidates: an ability to thrive under a harsh spotlight.

Orman said that's why television talk show hosts could provide especially fertile ground for future candidates.

"Oprah," he said, "would be an incredible candidate."


E-mail gkorte@enquirer.com

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