Cokie Roberts for president!

Columnist Ann Coulter may try to get Connecticut voters to take her home, while broadcaster Pat Buchanan and editor Steve Forbes are running again. But is a media perch really a political asset?

Published June 6, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Think you're man enough for Ann Coulter? Dream on, pretty boy, dream on. Since President Clinton's acquittal, the lawyer and pro-impeachment pundit has sought to establish herself as a serious political commentator for all seasons, a cause she advanced in her George column this month by posing in a miniskirt on a barstool and complaining about how hard it is to get a date in the capital: "Boys in Washington," she says, "don't know how to ask." (Curiously, they seem to find acid-spewing ideologues intimidating.)

Her love life notwithstanding, Coulter has been busily flirting with political office, giving substance to long-flying rumors that she would challenge Connecticut Rep. Christopher Shays in the Republican primary. She declared May 24 on C-Span's "Washington Journal" that "someone will run (against Shays), and it might be me," and her July column, George editor Richard Blow said, will be "about the temptations of running."

Would Coulter run as a lawyer-politico or as a columnist? Earlier in Salon, Blow had said Coulter's running -- then a rumor -- would be a clear conflict that would necessitate dropping her column, a position he reiterated after her comments, although he said Coulter's posturing did not disqualify her yet. "Ann is a dramatic person," Blow said, "and it genuinely is hard to tell whether she is serious or just needling a congressman she doesn't respect." He added that he's discussed the no-run-and-write rule with Coulter: "I think that one of the reasons she's not bothered by that is that she knows if she ran and continued to be a columnist, then we would have to give Chris Shays equal time. Nothing would infuriate her more."

James Poniewozik's column appears in Media every Monday and Thursday

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The unexamined question is why one would ban a columnist from running at all. The rule obviously assumes a conflict of interest, although one could argue that's a moot point for a political columnist, whose job is by definition to advocate her own agenda: Do we assume that a noncandidate Coulter would otherwise write columns opposing her own political beliefs? More important, it ascribes a power to the media that journalists' laughable history as candidates hardly bears out.

Everyone knows how omnipotent the media are, right? We make kids kill kids, promote cheap sex and expensive products, brainwash the public into liberal or conservative mind-sets, undermine religion and murder celebrities, all before lunch. Seeing as how we can remote-control the electorate from our keyboards, then, why don't we have one of our own in the White House? Mightn't it amuse us?

It's not for lack of trying. We've lately seen the attempted campaigns, notably, of former CNN host Pat Buchanan, magazine publisher Steve Forbes and former journalist Al Gore. Yet it's arguable how much, if at all, their press training helped any of them. Buchanan probably benefited most, since -- although he was a Nixon speechwriter and a columnist -- it was hosting CNN's "Crossfire" that gave him prominence. One would think that a veteran of pancake makeup would know enough to wipe the flecks of froth from his lips before public appearances; but after he won the 1996 New Hampshire GOP primary, his apprenticeship didn't keep him from hefting a rifle over his head in Arizona, assassinating his campaign in the process.

Buchanan, nonetheless, is trying again, as is Forbes -- who has not just his own magazine but a vast personal fortune and thus, given the common wisdom about the joint dictatorship of money and media, should have crowned himself emperor by now. (Note to Coulter: Though Forbes continues to write his editor's column -- conflict or no -- that's hardly lifted his poll numbers from the basement.)

Yet unlike, say, Ross Perot, Forbes has made little of his story of inheriting -- sorry, running! -- a magazine to reinforce his outsider/businessman status. Indeed, Forbes' new series of early ads (available online) do just the opposite, filming the candidate in black-and-white on an Oval-Office-like set. The ads do include now-familiar anti-Washington rhetoric and call for a flat tax "that looks like it was designed by a normal human being" (Forbes may have inadvertently spotted such a person, as a child, on a birding expedition). But visually, and more powerfully, they reposition him as an insider for credibility: Not only do they not say, "Steve Forbes is an outsider magazine publisher," they effectively say, "Steve Forbes is already president of the United States."

And why shouldn't Forbes downplay his media background? It hasn't much helped former Nashville Tennessean reporter Gore, who brags about his ink-stained past to come off as a regular working stiff but has thus-far played the Washington press like a warped banjo. And as a profession, journalists have done a pathetic job of translating our allegedly sweeping influence into political power: Historically, generals, lawyers -- even, or especially, farmers -- are way ahead of us, and candidacies like William F. Buckley's 1965 New York mayoral run are better media springboards than political ones: Buckley launched "Firing Line" the next year.

A prominent media figure may well make a serious White House run someday, but it's hard to imagine who: Picture, for instance, George Will eating barbecue. More mediagenic figures, on the other hand, risk charges of superficiality. More plausible is a mogul candidacy: Ted Turner occasionally floats the tantalizing idea of a loose-cannon bid. But while the CNN founder's role in the Time Warner empire would raise huge conflict concerns, his money might be his greater asset, given that the man who once said Christianity is "for losers" is perhaps one influential American who becomes less electable the more access he has to cameras. In Italy, TV magnate Silvio Berlusconi did become prime minister in 1994, but in the land of the five-second government you're more likely to be elected PM than get a parking ticket.

But one thing George has taught us -- no, I'm serious -- is that politicos make more successful media figures than journalists make political figures: That magazine alone now gives ink to Coulter, Paul Begala and advice columnist Alfonse D'Amato. Which may be a good sign for Coulter, who seems to be using her media moment in the only really practical political way: to get a brief visibility boost without getting tarred as -- ick! -- a journalist. Is Connecticut man enough for Ann Coulter? Maybe, maybe not, but one suspects she's not too chicken to ask it for a date.

By James Poniewozik

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

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