Where's a crazy billionaire when you need one?

Daddy Warbucks! The American media wants you ... to run for president.

Published May 20, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

If the rest of you don't mind excusing us for a moment, I'd like to address the crazy billionaires in the audience.

I know you're busy people -- what with the businesses to run, the employees to surveil, the FBI disrupting your children's weddings and so forth. But have you at least considered a third-party run for president? You there! Reading "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion"! Have you no sense of civic duty?

You may never see a better opportunity. Since the impeachment drama ended, leaving a news vacuum for a long-running story, the political media has confronted the possibility that the designated substitute -- the 2000 primaries -- may be over months before they technically begin. Amid the ensuing ennui, which will only get worse, any half-interesting freelance loon will receive a grateful groundswell of attention that will make Colin Powell's near acclamation in 1996 look like a public stoning. Your only limits are your bank account and your willingness to go off your medication!

Consider what the 2000 race promised: two parties, two primaries, perhaps a dozen and a half competitors leading fractious mini-armies to a fin de sihcle Ragnarok of culture war and self-interest. The Republican primary would be a loopy family drama with telegenic mouthpieces bloodying one another while God chose from among his several closest personal friends. On the Democratic side, there were rumors that actual Democrats might participate. But with 18 months to go in the it's-not-a-campaign-yet, we're already at an impasse. The Republican leadership is short-circuiting the primaries by lining up behind George W. Bush; the contest between Bill Bradley and Al Gore is being propelled on the faintest of journalistic hopes; even Steve Forbes has been reduced to the comical role of the humble preacher's boy from Bedminster.

And the press's restlessness is becoming apparent. As evidenced in the Politics 2000 coverage of the past couple of weeks, its principal coping mechanisms are breaking down into three categories:

1) Inflate-a-Bill. So desperate has the press been for something resembling a contest that it has collectively decided that if you splash enough ketchup on Bill Bradley, he tastes kind of like Robert F. Kennedy. Whatever ideals and accomplishments Bradley may have to his credit, he undeniably benefits from the well-wishing of reporters willing to trumpet that fact that when he gets around to specifying campaign planks, there could be a vigorous debate among the Dems, which might make for an actual contest if Gore possibly makes some unforeseen, egregious stumble.

For which, of course, we're not crossing our fingers or anything, right? "Gore's best bet may be for Bill Bradley to pass him in the polls and emerge as the front-runner so the vice president is forced to claw his way back, proving his mettle," writes Jonathan Alter in Newsweek. But to whom, exactly, does a man who's been VP for seven years need to prove his mettle? To the press, which has come to see the senator's son and poor campaigner as a rich game hunter who, having been jetted to Africa and chauffeured to the side of a prostrate, drugged elephant, shoots and misses repeatedly, occasionally grazing a servant.

Ironically, though the Bradley campaign advocates in some vague way cleansing American politics of cynicism, Dollar Bill, whose nickname is looking more apt by the minute, has really shown his viability mainly through kick-ass fund-raising. None of this is to say that Bradley won't prove a strong alternative or doesn't deserve attention, but the fact is that right now Bradley's biggest contributors are in the Republican Party -- every endorsement for George W. is an endorsement for Bradley, by the lights of an anxious press corps.

2) Become a POW of Love. Mike Wallace says he'd campaign for him; the New Republic's David Grann sets out to debunk his "Hero Myth" and decides, "He is the real thing. A genuine war hero." He's Sen. John McCain, favorite candidate, if not of the GOP electorate, then of political journalists, who've seized on the blunt former 'Nam POW as a corrective to George W.'s front-runner evasiveness and Elizabeth Dole's apparent preference to campaign by videotape. The default Zeitgeisty explanation, advanced in TNR and elsewhere: Americans, in the age of "Saving Private Ryan," are uniquely ready to embrace a hero. We're accustomed enough to Spielbergian political analysis by now that it's initially hard to discount that, until you recall that major candidates and near-candidates have played up their experience under fire in every recent presidential election going back at least to Flyboy Bush in '88.

More likely, at least part of McCain's appeal lies in his vaunted candor, which means that, on the one hand, he's willing to push for campaign finance reform and, on the other, as Grann notes, he's willing to say "fuck" for attribution. I don't doubt reporters' genuine admiration, but couldn't they also be hoping, with the infamous Chelsea Clinton joke still ringing in their ears, that McCain just might make an obscene reference to Tipper Gore in mid-debate?

3) Roust the Spouses. Speaking of which, from the looks of it, Bob Dole and Tipper were running on their spouses' behalf this week. The New York Times turned to Bob, who obliged for the attention by speculating about donating money to McCain and leaving open the possibility Liddy might not run at all. Tipper, meanwhile, preemptively disclosed her treatment for depression, which Time heralded for adding a "human dimension" to Al's campaign (Gore, in the light of his two Democratic convention speeches, has made a career of employing family misfortune to give himself a human dimension; we can only hope he's saving something for 2004). Newsweek, meanwhile, discusses how Al Gore can boost his regular-guy image vicariously, by having the former cultural scold play drums with former Grateful Dead members. (In presidential politics, mind, there isn't a terribly high bar for hipness, considering that one is making an impression on Washington journalists whose experience of the counterculture extends to New Haven toga parties 20 years ago -- the same folks whom President Clinton convinced he was down with the young'uns by playing Elvis on a saxophone in 1992.)

Missing, of course, in much of this analysis is much discussion of what any candidates' administrations might be like, that being traditionally left for the December after the election, when it's time to choose a Cabinet. (Bradley has even airily stated that it's not yet the proper time for him to offer actual positions and proposals.) But here, perhaps, the Great Snooze of 2000 could be a boon. Maybe, just maybe, if Gore and Bush become fait accomplis by this fall, the press might be forced to focus on their differences on issues for the next several months, just to maintain interest. We often hear complaints about the extended campaign season (a gripe this campaign addict has never shared: Lamar Alexander, who has probably already formed his 2004 and 2008 exploratory committees, is my personal hero). But at best an extended campaign could be an extended forum for vetting our leaders and for debate, which are hardly public ills.

Of course, that's a desperate last resort, which is where you crazy billionaires come in. Just think: At one point in 1992 Ross Perot had a third of the voters behind him -- and all he had going for him was the electorate's dissatisfaction. Act now, and you'll have a far more powerful disgruntled bloc behind you -- and a name recognition that can only help your business once you drop out in a fit of pique come fall 2000! Do the math, my friend: You can't afford not to run.

By James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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