Thursday, July 9, 2015

Of Fees, Futility, and Mike Huckabee

So, this one requires a little review. 

On December 18, 2013, an article entitled Talk Is Not Cheap: Why Do Ex-Politicians Earn Huge Money From Making Speeches? was published in the International Business Times, said article including some quotes from your humble servant, yours truly. I shared the article, accompanied by some discussion and analysis, in a post entitled, Giant Speaking Fees-Fi-Fo-Fum, back on February 23rd of 2014.

I thought that was the end of it. Wrong again!

Out of the quotes in that published article, which were taken from a larger set of quotes I had provided to the reporter, a single quote was recently re-quoted (is that anything like re-gifting?) in an article published by the Daily Dot. And in case you're not familiar with this outlet (and I have to admit that I was not myself before now), here is how they describe themselves:

The Daily Dot is the ultimate destination for original reporting about Internet life. We recognize Web users are deeply passionate about their communities and offer them stories that highlight the members of those communities. Our writing is definitive, comprehensive, and pulls from the best traditions of journalism. It is coverage that, uniquely, is not just on the web, but of the web.

So, the particular article in question was published on May 6th of this year, written by Matt Rozsa, and entitled, The Real Reason Mike Huckabee Keeps Running for President. If you want to click on the link and take a look at the article over on the Daily Dot site, please be my guest. I'll provide you with most of here, minus the links and added material, so if you want to follow up, again, go check it out.

So, Rozsa starts it off like this:

Shortly after Mike Huckabee ended his campaign for president in 2008, he began another career—this time as the host of his very own show on Fox News. If you want to understand Huckabee’s reason for making a recent entry into the 2016 race, you must start by recognizing that being an Also Ran can be very, very profitable.

After all, Huckabee’s chances of actually winning are quite slim. “Mr. Huckabee would seem to face greater obstacles than during his first presidential campaign, when he battled only a couple of rivals for the party’s conservative base,” writes Trip Gabriel of the New York Times. “Now half a dozen or more declared and likely candidates appeal to social conservatives, and Mr. Huckabee’s party has moved further rightward.”

If his vulnerabilities among the GOP’s conservative base weren’t damning enough, he is also damaged by his own checkered history when it comes to espousing ideas that are (to put it generously) controversial:

At this point, Rozsa provides several tweets dealing with Huckabee's offensive remarks make in the past, which you can view over there, I won't bother with them here, let's just get on with the point of the article:

These tweets demonstrate that the Internet is very much aware of Huckabee’s past views on gay rights, such as quarantining AIDS victims and supporting legislation permitting discrimination against gay people, as well as his paranoid Christian agenda in general. (Remember that time he claimed the American government was trying to criminalize Christianity?) Although presidential nominations are snagged by appealing to one’s party base, general elections are won by winning over the center, and considering that the American center opposes the injection of religion into politics, Huckabee’s very political brand guarantees his own unelectability.

Naturally, one must wonder: Could Huckabee really be deluded about his own chances of winning? If not, what possible reason could he have to enter the campaign?

“Huckabee is one of a number of people who have managed to make a career out of staging one long, endless, futile presidential run,” explains Drew Magary of GQ. “If you have enough money, a few rich benefactors, and a handful of bafflingly stubborn constituents, you can usually cobble together a campaign that is doomed to fail, but deliberately so.”

Now, here's where we get to the connection to the earlier article regarding speaking fees:

Politicians from both parties indulge in this practice. Rudy Giuliani earned more than $9.2 million in speakers fees in the year before his 2008 presidential campaign, while Hillary Clinton has been to known to accept as much as $200,000 for individual speaking engagements since her tenure as Secretary of State came to a close.

Other pricey Also Rans include Al Gore, whose agency requires him to be compensated “$100,000, plus travel, hotel, security, and per diem expenses”; Mitt Romney, who has averaged between $40,000 and $60,000 per appearance since his unsuccessful 2012 campaign; and Howard Dean, who has been paid $20,000 for speeches as short as 10 minutes in duration.

Of course, the original article on speaking fees was as much if not more so about the winners, like Bill Clinton, as it was about losers like Gore and Huckabee. And this article, on the other hand, is not limited to the topic of speaking fees alone:

Nor is it merely speaking that can rake in the cash for an erstwhile presidential contender. A study by the University of Minnesota’s Eric Ostermeier determined that Sarah Palin—who voters with good memories may recall toyed with a presidential bid in 2012 before being snapped up by Fox News—earned $3 million during her three years as a commentator there, averaging out to $15.85 per word.

Though not earning nearly as much as Palin, many political observers theorized that Huckabee decided against running for president in 2012 because he’d have to give up the $500,000 annual salary from his show.

So now, let's get to my own little quote, or re-quote, in this article:

Dr. Lance Strate, a professor of communication and media studies and associate chair for graduate studies at Fordham University, argues that former presidential candidates can successfully demand egregious sums of money because they have star power. Strate told the International Business Times, “For some, there is the basic interest in being associated with a celebrity, the prestige that comes with the presence and participation of a famous and influential individual.”

And there you have it. Now it's on to bigger and better things:

The digital age has only exacerbated this trend. “Throughout modern campaign history successful candidates have tended to outpace their competitors in understanding changing communications,” explained a 2012 Pew Research Center study on Web and social media use during that year’s presidential election. This ranged “from Franklin Roosevelt’s use of radio, to John F. Kennedy’s embrace of television, to Ronald Reagan’s recognition of the potential for arranging the look and feel of campaign events in the age of satellites and video tape.”

Whereas previous technological advances merely extended the reach of a candidate’s message, however, the Internet allows them to remain in the public eye as long as they can generate headlines on Twitter. Candidates who are able to flourish in this climate may not have demonstrated an ability to effectively serve in public office, but they certainly prove something else entirely—namely, that they are marketable commodities.

Actually, there are no headlines on Twitter, but as long as you are a trending item, or at least a popular subject, sure that would be true. But celebrities do not live by Twitter alone, and the bottom line is that there are many platforms that can create and maintain visibility, and many ways that fame can remain even after the individual is no longer with us. YouTube, for example, is a prime example, in this regard.

And as for running for president as a ploy to gain greater fame, well I imagine that the name Donald Trump comes to mind for you as well as for me. Anyway, back to Rozsa:
While it’s bad enough that former politicians have the ability to so egregiously cash in on their fame, the more-likely-than-not phony campaigns of candidates like Huckabee take the problem of money corrupting politics to a whole other level.

Aside from the questionable fiscal ethics of conjoining a bid for elected office with one’s personal financial agenda, running for president simply to make money later distorts our democratic discourse. Every candidate who campaigns insincerely takes time, money, and attention away from those making good faith bids for power. Even worse, when a genuine candidate and a mercenary one have overlapping constituencies, the unelectable alternative can take votes away from the option who could realistically advance the cause of his or her constituents.

Now, I have mixed feelings about this argument. I do agree that turning the serious matter of running for elected office into a public relations strategy to promote the celebrity's own visibility is bad for democracy. This is the kind of argument that resonates with Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death and my own Amazing Ourselves to Death

On the other hand, the idea that having too many candidates constitutes a problem, something we're hearing a lot of lately with some 20 odd (and I do mean that in both senses) major party candidates right now, and that we should only focus on the candidates that have the best shot at winning strikes me as inimical to the proper functioning of a democracy, of the free marketplace of ideas, and I think that happens all too often. I know that this is a point on which my colleague and friend, Paul Levinson, and I agree.

Let them all have a voice, our political process is much too constrained as it is, I mean, why are only two parties given serious consideration? Doesn't that limit political discourse to a narrow range? Wouldn't more parties, as well as more candidates, broaden the range of opinions and ideas, and therefore make for better deliberations?

In taking this position, I hope you understand that I in no way endorse the candidacy of Huckabee, who Rozsa rightly points out is seen by many as something of a bigot:

Of course, in the case of candidates like Huckabee, the toxicity of their cause is in its own right a problem. Despite the enormous strides made in recent years on issues like gay rights, there are still many Americans who wish to make a political crusade out of denying basic civil liberties to men and women with different sexual orientations.

Even though he won’t become president, and is unlikely to be the Republican nominee, Huckabee’s candidacy will still serve as a focal point for anti-gay bigots throughout the country, giving them an outlet to exercise (at the very least symbolic) electoral power. To play this role sincerely is deplorable; to do so with the primary goal of making money is even worse.

At some future date, a historian studying the early 21st century may look back at the hucksterism of men like Mike Huckabee and wonder how he got away with it. For now, unfortunately, we have to live with yet another doomed campaign.

The upshot of all this, once again, is the problem of the blurring of the boundaries between politics, journalism, and entertainment, which again brings me back to our fatal amusements and amazements.


How are we to view Huckabee, after all? As a former governor, presidential candidate, and generally speaking, a politician? As a broadcast journalist? Or given the criticism of television news in general, and FOX News specifically, as an entertainer? His politics may be reactionary, but in his blurring of the boundaries, what he represents is downright revolutionary. And that too is cause for concern. 

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