Primary-Time TV With Colbert the Candidate
Wednesday, October 17, 2007
It has become something of a television cliche: politicians launching their electoral campaigns on late-night talk shows, in a calculated attempt at hipness.
But a late-night comic announcing his presidential candidacy on a late-night talk show--now that is a hall-of-mirrors maneuver worthy of Stephen Colbert. The man known to viewers for his portrayal of a fulminating right-wing blowhard said on Comedy Central last night that he will be a favorite-son candidate in his native South Carolina.
Asked in a world-exclusive interview if he plans to give up his show, Colbert said: "Do you think I'm a fool? Now that I'm a candidate, you people are going to be gunning for me, like you do for everybody." Not only will the program enable him to bite back at the press, he pointed out, but "you know what it pays to be a presidential candidate? Not well."
As for the inconvenient truth that he hasn't lived in the Palmetto State for years, the host of "The Colbert Report" went negative, daring the other candidates to match his appeal back home: "John Edwards left South Carolina when he was 1 year old. He had his chance. Saying his parents moved him -- that's the easy answer."
Colbert's chances may be less than slim, but in today's infotainment culture, he could draw precious media attention from the second-tier contenders. And he has a nightly platform to milk the spectacle for jokes, if not votes.
Colbert told Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show" that he planned to announce soon on a more prestigious program -- and minutes later, on his own 11:30 p.m. show, said he was taking the plunge, triggering a big balloon drop.
Colbert told The Washington Post that he would file papers to run in both parties' primaries.
Fred Thompson's "Law & Order" reruns were yanked by NBC after he announced his White House bid on Jay Leno's couch because of concerns about equal-time rules. But those restrictions apparently do not apply to cable television.
Colbert is, in real life, a Democrat. And while he plays a Bill O'Reilly-style bloviator on the air, Colbert has a devoted following on the left. When he performed at the White House Correspondents Dinner last year, he skewered President Bush in the guise of praising him, saying the administration was "rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg" and that while the reality was that Bush had a 32 percent approval rating, "reality has a well-known bias."
In his role as bombastic buffoon, Colbert sticks it to the press just as often, saying what matters is not some boring adherence to the facts but a matter's essential "truthiness."
It would be just like an annoying reporter to point out that Colbert happens to be pushing a new book called "I Am America (And So Can You!)." He solemnly insists he isn't trying to boost book sales, "though I certainly wouldn't refuse the money if it came my way."
What, exactly, is Colbert's platform? He's ticked that Georgia is known as the Peach State even though, he contends, South Carolina grows more peaches. He's worried about Chinese shrimp imports hurting his home-state fishermen. And, he adds out of nowhere, "we shouldn't fall prey to the homosexual agenda."
He seems to have an unorthodox fundraising strategy in mind: "I'd really like to get some corporate sponsorship. Some sort of salty snack."
The first television comic to run for president was Pat Paulsen in 1968, but the opportunities for self-promotion are infinitely greater in the blogging age.
Colbert was a smirking correspondent for Stewart's fake-news broadcast until the fall of 2005, when Comedy Central gave him an eight-week tryout for the spinoff show. The program -- built around a host whom Colbert (that is, the off-screen Colbert) describes as "a well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-status idiot" -- was an instant hit.
He has been raising his media profile, taking over Maureen Dowd's New York Times column on Sunday to tease his possible candidacy and needle potential rivals. In the interview, though, he was quick to lower expectations: "It will be a success for me if at the Republican or Democratic convention, someone stands up and says, 'The great state of South Carolina, home of the finest peaches, home of the finest shrimp, casts one delegate for Stephen Colbert.' "
One delegate? Isn't that a pretty low bar? And what if his anticipated groundswell fails to materialize?
In that case, says Colbert, he would have to consider "the nuclear option" -- dropping out.