Running the Show

TV and Politics Aren't Worlds Apart

I’m batting 0-for-3 in convincing people to run for president.

The first time I approached someone to run was 12 years ago, long before I became a TV writer. I was working in the U.S. Senate as joint counsel for Sens. Paul Wellstone and Ted Kennedy, two of the great liberals of all time, and spending my evenings working for Wellstone’s campaign for president.

One gloomy Saturday, Wellstone dropped his bid for president. I immediately fell into a depression.

To get myself out of it, in a fit of giddy inspiration, I called Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund. Her husband Peter answered the phone. I think he could tell by the tone of my voice why I was calling, and sagely just passed the phone over to Marian.

As it turns out, she was in the process of giving one of her grandchildren a bath. She somehow managed to continue doing so while I was on the phone. (Now that’s multi-tasking). I proceeded to give her my most impassioned plea for why a true liberal, aiming to inspire the base the way conservative Republicans do, could make a credible bid for the White House. I suggested she employ the techniques Wellstone had planned and that Howard Dean would employ effectively four years later.

Marian heard me out politely. When I was done, she lovingly described for me the process of bathing her beautiful grandchild, the tenderness and sweetness of the experience and the joy it brought to them both. Then she gave me her love and bid me a good night’s rest.

It was the sweetest rejection I ever received.

Two years later, Wellstone died in a plane crash, and I made my way to Los Angeles to try a new career. The triggering event for uprooting my life was heartbreak over Wellstone’s tragic death, but my earlier conversation with Edelman also loomed large in the decision.

Why didn’t she want to run? Was it simply because she wanted to tend to her family? Perhaps. But there are plenty of other reasons someone as qualified, talented and inspirational as Edelman would avoid running for president.

There are only a few dozen people in the United States who are really capable of running for president. By “capable,” I mean people who hold a position high enough in the public eye to get the kind of attention needed to raise enough money to mount a credible campaign to attract media attention, which will in turn attract more money, and hence staff, endorsements, advertising budgets and delegates needed to – deep breath – actually get votes on election day.

And we, the American public (and the world itself), are at the mercy of what those few dozen people decide to do. Whether they decide to run or not, whether they decide to govern in our interest or in their own, the policies they choose to implement – these are all decisions we can barely influence. They have standing. They get to do what they want with it. We are merely bystanders who get to react to the decisions they make.

That’s the stifling world of politics. My hope was that would not be the same story with TV, which I imagined to be a far more innovative, open and edgy space.

At least that was my hope.

As it turns out, the number of writer-producers (“showrunners”) with standing among studio and network executives, showrunners deemed capable of launching a successful TV show, is about as small as the number of people deemed capable of running for president. These are the few Hollywood veterans whom studios trust to deliver on-time shootable scripts that are sufficiently fresh but still in keeping with a network’s image; to manage budgets and deliver complete episodes in time to be marketed and aired in order to – wait for it – actually be watched by a significant audience.

The American public, and the world itself, are at the mercy of what those few dozen showrunners choose to write and produce. Whether they aim for greatness or try to satiate the public; whether they try to inspire or depress. Whether they “mail it in” or relentlessly push the envelope – these are decisions we can barely influence. They have standing. They get to do what they want with it. The American public, and the world itself, are at the mercy of what those few dozen showrunners choose to write and produce.

I should confess if it is not obvious at this point that I want in; I hope to be one of those elite showrunners soon. I should also add that none of what I am saying is meant to imply that the candidates and showrunners who command our attention and allegiance in Washington and on the air aren’t great at what they do. But even some of the great ones will admit that they have gone through the ringer so many times that though they may still be standing, they hardly have the fire in their belly that got them noticed in the first place.

Many of them have learned to play it safe, and they have been rewarded for it. Even if they want to “do better,” they have trained themselves to settle for doing ok. In the political world, the goal is 50 percent plus one. In TV, it’s “keep as much of our lead-in as possible.”

Every now and then, someone within these two rarefied clubs manages to exceed expectations by keeping their original creative fires aflame. Such rare individuals (we all know who they are) change the entire landscape, whether in politics or media. And every now and then, someone shows up out of left field and bucks the system (like I hoped Edelman or Wellstone would in politics). But given the wildly increasing number of for-profit attention grabbers on television and the Internet, the walls these rare individuals have to scale in either the political and TV world grow higher every year.

There may not be much that we can do as citizens and consumers to change this system. But we can do a lot to increase the quality of candidates and showrunners that receive so much of our attention.

First and foremost, we need to be mindful of what we consume and how we vote. When it comes to TV, even though I don’t have a Nielsen box, I make sure to watch the shows that I think are of high quality (even if, at times, they’re playing in the background), and I avoid the ones I don’t think are swinging for the fences. I vote in every election and I read the news – and because I’m a liberal, I make a special effort to reach out to candidates who are not liberals but seem like good leaders, even if they don’t represent either my district or my beliefs. None of us can singlehandedly change the television and political selection processes, but each of us can do our part. You may think that you are watching politicians and TV networks. But believe me: They are watching you.

Most importantly, I try to encourage people who are meant to lead to run for office, and people who are meant to write and produce to become showrunners. That’s why I’ve tried two more times to convince people to run for president, and why I encourage writers with good ideas to write.

In fact, if you are one such person – if you have a calling to either profession – consider this my most earnest request: go for it. You may be exactly what we need.

Roger Wolfson is a television writer who has worked for Law and Order: SVU, Saving Grace and The Closer. Before moving to Los Angeles, he worked as a legislative assistant, attorney and speechwriter on Capitol Hill.

*Photo courtesy of Sasha Nilov.


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