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When politicians go pop

Oprah. Chuck Norris. Barbra Streisand. The writers strike has left Americans so starved for entertainment that it feels like we’re slowly turning our national elections into a hot new reality show

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Jemal Countess/WireImage.com

When politicians go pop

I write about pop culture for a magazine that deals with American entertainment. Does a presidential campaign belong in a column like that, for a magazine like this? Two months ago, I would have said no. But then came Oprah Winfrey’s decision to actively campaign for Barack Obama. And the writers’ strike. And the completely wrong polls preceding the New Hampshire Democratic primary, and the news media’s subsequent caution in quoting polls since then.

The tipping point came somewhere in Georgia, on my annual drive from Maine to Florida; I was listening to a country station. The DJ spun Alan Jackson’s new single, ”Small Town Southern Man,” and when it was over he said it belonged to a new musical genre: Huckabilly. Sitting there in my car as I-95 unrolled in front of me, I thought: Something’s going on here.

Indeed there is. The presidency has gone pop-cult. And to a large extent I blame the WGA.

Are TV viewers’ habits changing because of the writers’ strike? Many reporters who cover entertainment — some at this very periodical — think they are, and that if the strike doesn’t end soon, the changes will accelerate. One change they’ve noted is the ever larger number of TV watchers who are tuning in to coverage of the campaign (which already feels four centuries old). The switch is partly because scripted TV episodes are in increasingly short supply, but it’s also because…damn, people are just interested. If anything has come clear in the last few months, it’s that citizens are tired of the Bush & Cheney Show. They want someone new. Almost anybody, it seems.

Programmers at cable nets like CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News may have been born at night, but it wasn’t last night, and they’re not stupid. They’ve jumped on the bandwagon and produced a constant din of political palaver. Most is generated by the motormouths my friend The Longhair calls ”the White Guys in Ties Brigade.” But it’s not all Pat Buchanan and Chris Matthews; there are also real stars! OMG!!

2008 has become the political equivalent of Celebrity Match Game. Huckabee fans include Ted ”I Never Saw a Gun I Didn’t Like” Nugent and Chuck Norris, he of the scary teeth. Hillary Clinton’s got Barbra Streisand. John Edwards was running on empty with Jackson Browne. Rudy Giuliani had…er, Bo Derek? Romney is trailing the field, celeb-wise, but still trying with Donny Osmond. And even Fred Thompson had a pet celeb: Pat Sajak! (I was hoping my guy Obama would get Sajak, but disappointment is a part of politics.)

NEXT PAGE: ”Is it beyond belief that come November we might hear, ‘Election Night ’08! Brought to you by Budweiser — please vote responsibly’?”

Yet glitz alone isn’t enough; as some wise fellow (it might have been Yoda) once pointed out, ”One monkey don’t stop no show.” This is hard to believe, but surveys suggest over half the American electorate doesn’t seem to care who Wilford Brimley supports (answer: John McCain). Even Oprah’s no guarantee: While I’m sure she’s helped, she couldn’t bring the funk in New Hampshire and Nevada.

Not a problem, though. The response of the media covering the races has been to dumb them down to a giddy but politically inane reality show: Call it The Great Presidency Race or American Political Idol. They even had Dennis Kucinich to play the part of Sanjaya Malakar. Isn’t that wonderful for them.

Or call it White House Survivor, with Tim Russert subbing for Jeff Probst. Every primary brings a new immunity challenge, and the winners get a dose of that mystic thing called ”momentum.” One by one the field is winnowed down until our new champ can be crowned in November. Do the candidates’ programs and promises count? A little, but what really plays is Hillary misting up and Mike Huckabee plucking his bass guitar. Is it beyond belief that come November we might hear, ”Election Night ’08! Brought to you by Budweiser — please vote responsibly”? Probably it is. But if American Political Idol continues to grow in popularity, it might be only a matter of time. Think of the possibilities! Slo-mo replays of the latest candidate meltdown, brought to you by Chevrolet!

I don’t like this. Maybe I’m an old fogy, but turning the election process into a game show makes me depressed about the present and nervous about the future. One possibly good sign: Hip TV watchers have grown increasingly foxy about the polling process. The age of innocence is over; voters once willing to come clean and say they voted for Mike Huckabee because Nugent’s ”Cat Scratch Fever” loincloth is still the high point of their rock lives are harder and harder to find.

Can I be blunt? I think a lot of voters now lie right through their teeth when speaking to pollsters. And that might be the most optimistic trend in an election year where the coverage has never been dumber or more dubious. Because, dig, American voters seem to have realized that once they go into the voting booth and pull the curtain closed, they’re on their own. No cameras, no celebs, no immunity challenges. Only them and the lever. Which I think is the way it’s supposed to be. Of course, that’s just my opinion.

We welcome yours.