BOB GARFIELD: During our everlasting election cycle there's a sort of Washington gavotte that is performed in front of us in major magazines and on the Sunday chat shows where certain politicians are anointed as the next great presidential hopeful. The latest example of this is Democratic North Carolina Senator John Edwards.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Or so contends National Journal writer William Powers. He describes a multi-step process whereby potential candidates are discovered, celebrated, anointed and sometimes squashed only to rise again. In fact he says it's exactly how the Hollywood media treat aspiring starlets. Powers calls it "the Hollywood-Washington Paradigm." Welcome to OTM.
WILLIAM POWERS: Thank you. Nice to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So let's get to this paradigm. What are those stages?
WILLIAM POWERS: Well I'll go through them quickly, Brooke. The first is this sort of getting-to-know-you stage where the politician, as a movie star would, makes scattered appearances in the magazines. People Magazine, some of the TV shows, the Today Show, that kind of thing. And the second stage is what I call the runup which is where the person is the subject of a major profile -- sort of a life story that preferably is quite moving and heartfelt. And that happened for John Edwards in the Washington Post. The third stage is what I call validation where a magazine that is involved in sort of really crowning a person as the frontrunner or a superstar does the piece that says here is the person you need to pay attention to. In this case, interestingly, Vanity Fair which is the chief anointer of movie stars also did the job on John Edwards with a valentine that said here's the next great Democrat.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And that valentine was penned of all people by Christopher Hitchens [sp?] -- not known for writing love notes.
WILLIAM POWERS:No. Exactly. And that made it all the more noteworthy that Christopher Hitchens, this very tough Washington journalist, took a real shine to this politician.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And then comes the think piece.
WILLIAM POWERS:Yes. Inevitably, Brooke, you have this piece that sort of attempts to put a kind of a brainy cast to this craze and this person and explains that, that we care about this person for a, a reason that's larger than we had realized which is there's some zeitgeist shift happening, and they represent it. In this case, the New Yorker magazine which is very good at doing those kinds of pieces basically pointed out here's a guy who's a personal injury lawyer who might run for president and in fact we're in an age of what you might call a courtroom-style politics of anecdote where the nation might be ready for that kind of a candidate because we live in those times.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now the next stage is what you call the meta-piece.
WILLIAM POWERS:The meta-piece is the piece where the journalist steps back and says -- whoa -there's been a lot of kind of attention to this person. I'm going to be sort of two notches smarter than everybody else and write about the scene and the attention and make -try and make sense of that. So a movie journalist might go to Sundance and write about the whole crazy scene of moviemakers trying to get famous at that festival. In this case, U.S. News -- I pointed to a piece by Roger Simon in which he went to New Hampshire recently -- followed Edwards around and sort of made fun of the scene around Edwards.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And then you come to what seems to be a bit precipitous -- the flop.
WILLIAM POWERS:Yes. You know I had this great buildup for Edwards in the last few months -- all these pieces appearing - much excitement -- and then suddenly he did this interview on Tim Russert's Sunday show, Meet the Press, which is really the ultimate TV show now for a politician to be on in Washington -- and he really was a disaster. It was just stunning how-- unremarkable he seemed.
TIM RUSSERT: Do you believe that Sharon should negotiate with Arafat?
JOHN EDWARDS: I think that's a decision he needs to make. You know? He's-- as I said, he's going to have - he has evidence that he's going to talk to us about-- that he believes shows that--that-- Arafat is complicit-- has, has some responsibility for what's happened--
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Well Bill, I watched it too, and-- it struck me he wasn't remarkably unremarkable; he threw around the same boilerplate you see all politicians throwing around.
WILLIAM POWERS: True. You know, we slice it pretty thin inside the Beltway, and I live inside the Beltway, but I felt that in reading some of these pieces we've described I was expecting several cuts above the standard politician, and what I got as you point out was standard issue.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Which brings me to the whole premise of your article: does this have anything to do really with the public or is this purely an inside-the-Beltway phenomenon?
WILLIAM POWERS: No, it doesn't matter outside the Beltway. It matters very little, but-- as in Hollywood these insiders really kind of pull a lot of the levers that decide who's going to get that chance -- you know who's going to be in the final, you know, 6 or whatever contenders for the big slot. And so I think in that sense it does matter, and the more people beyond the Beltway are aware of it, the more intelligent they'll be about how we wind up with the guys we wind up with.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:The one particular Hollywood star that you liken Edwards to is John Travolta who had a big flop called Moment by Moment. It took him 15 years to crawl back to the top with Pulp Fiction! You really think that Edwards took that kind of a flying flop?
WILLIAM POWERS: Yeah, I did want to point out my final stage in this paradigm that I've outlined is the comeback, and I think the cycle has become a lot tighter, timewise, both in movies and in politics, and so John Edwards had a flop very early. I think he could have a comeback, frankly, next week. [LAUGHTER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bill Powers, thank you very much.
WILLIAM POWERS: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bill Powers is a writer for the National Journal.
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, why people who go to the bathroom during the commercials should go to jail!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media from National Public Radio.
"If I Could, I Would"
by Terence Blanchard