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Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: Reality check for politicians completely out of touch


The line between politics and entertainment just got even more blurred with the news that the search for a Republican candidate to take on President Barack Obama next year will double as a reality TV show.

Speaking exclusively to the Herald this week, America Lacks Talent creator and executive producer Lucifer Fink explained the concept.

"We live in interesting times, in the sense of the old Chinese curse. Europe's a basket case and America's not much better. I'm no economist but I do have a calculator and, according to my calculations, there's not enough money in the world to fix things.

"Meanwhile, China's flexing its muscles, Russia wants to re-start the Cold War and Iran's close to having the bomb, which makes another war in the Middle East only slightly less certain than the changing of the seasons.

"When you get down to the nitty-gritty," said Fink, "democracy is based on the assumption that society is smart enough to identify the problems it faces and agree on a solution - act co-operatively in its own self-interest in other words. I question that assumption.

"Look around, what do you see? Politicians fiddling while Rome burns, or putting self-advancement and ideology ahead of the public good; voters who change channels as soon as the discussion turns serious, and are distracted by personalities and sideshows; a news media that covers elections as a cross between a soap opera and a sports tournament.

"Look at what's happening in your country. This tea tape business dwarfs every other election issue put together, but what does it tell us? That by combining a photo opportunity with political horse-trading your Prime Minister was tripped up by his tendency to be too cute by half. That he reckons New Zealand First supporters are a dying breed and Don Brash is from another planet. Hello? If those are dark, unmentionable secrets, then New Zealand politics has a bad case of the emperor's new clothes."

Fink revealed that he got the idea for America Lacks Talent during the 2008 presidential election, when Republican candidate John McCain plucked Sarah Palin from Alaskan obscurity to be his running mate.

"Here was a guy whose whole career had been based on integrity, patriotism, country first. But because he thought it would help him get elected, he chose as his potential vice- president, the person who'd be a heartbeat from the presidency, someone who was only marginally better-qualified for the position than the average polar bear. Sure, it backfired on him, but let's not forget that for a time the media was absolutely entranced with Palin and plenty of Americans still are."

What convinced Fink to go ahead with the project was the brief ascendancy this year of property developer and reality TV star Donald Trump.

"Trump's probably the most preposterous public figure in America, and the idea of him in the White House is absurd and frightening on more counts than I care to contemplate. Yet for a couple of months he was the leading Republican contender and the media treated him as a serious candidate.

"America Lacks Talent takes this trend to its logical conclusion: to enter the race for the Republican nomination and the chance to wrest the presidency from Obama's shaky grip, contestants had to prove that, by the traditional criteria, they're hopelessly ill-equipped to take on the awesome responsibility of the job.

"So we've got the likes of Michelle Bachmann, who thinks gay marriage poses a greater threat to America than 5000 Soviet nuclear missiles ever did and has trouble differentiating between John Wayne, the famous movie star and American icon, and John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer and rapist. Or Herman Cain, who can't decide whether he approved or disapproved of Obama's handling of the Libyan situation because A, he doesn't know what Obama did there and B, doesn't know where Libya is."

But how on earth did Fink get the Republican Party to buy into his concept?

"These days the Republicans are pretty much about guns, God and greed, so anyone who ticks those boxes is just fine by them. Bear in mind we're talking about people who sincerely believe the solution to our economic ills is to make the richest people in America, your actual billionaires, pay even less tax while slashing government programmes that assist the most disadvantaged people in society."

Fink brushed off the suggestion that promoting candidates who are clearly out of their depth at such a fraught time in global affairs is recklessly irresponsible: "Kids in America are constantly told that anybody can be president. I just want to find out if that's true."

- NZ Herald

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