You probably haven't heard of him, but Rob Nelson is working hard to change that. Nelson, the thirty-something host of the FOX News Channel's fledgling Saturday night talk show The Full Nelson, wants to run for political office (he doesn't say which office, but the show's audience coordinator cheerfully told me that she believes Nelson will be president some day), and becoming a widely recognized TV personality is a key part of his plan. If people get to know him by seeing him on television, Nelson reasons, they will be more likely to read his book Last Call: 10 Commonsense Solutions to America's Biggest Problems and grapple with his ideas, more likely to take an interest in political issues, more likely to exchange the disillusionment of the current era for a new, proactive idealism, and, somewhere along the line, more likely to register to vote and elect him to an office from which he can work effectively to reform the political system.
What Nelson has called his "independent populist" platform is an ambitious one. If properly mobilized, Nelson argues, we could, among other things, rid Congress of all incumbents and start with a fresh bunch (with term limits); hold a convention to update the Constitution and possibly do away with the Second Amendment; privatize schools and Social Security; end poverty. It's a tall order, and one that provides plenty of fodder for critics. But before we went to the moon, Nelson told me when I visited the FOX News studios, no one thought that was possible either. In comparison, "a simple thing like altering the political system is very achievable." This may sound cheesy on paper, but in person, Nelson is actually quite compelling. I came away from my meeting with him feeling guilty about my own thirty-something cynicism.
Nelson first developed his sense of the power of the media in politics when he tried to enact change in the traditional way, in the early 1990s, as co-founder of the grass-roots lobbying group Lead or Leave, which, with the support of Paul Tsongas and Ross Perot, among others, challenged members of Congress to eliminate half the federal deficit in four years or leave office. The organization ultimately ran out of money, but Nelson made enough noise in Washington to win both enemies and friends. Along the way, he learned about television: When CNN paid attention, so did the president. So why not, he reasoned, eliminate the middlemen and use his own television show to get the public's attention--and the politicians'--and inspire them to embrace his ideas?
Nelson's approach seems very much of his generation--the first to grow up with politics and television so intertwined that you can't imagine things any other way. Rather than rally against celebrity and the sound byte as destructive forces in American politics, Nelson has adopted a kind of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" philosophy. "You can entertain people and educate them and challenge them and provoke them at the same time, and that's what I try to do," he told me. "There's no reason why people with provocative ideas or meaningful things to contribute shouldn't use mainstream vehicles to get that attention. At the end of the day, we are a society that will listen to people we recognize more than we will listen to someone we've never heard of."
Indeed. In Nelson's lifetime we have elected the purser from The Love Boat (Fred Grandy) to the House of Representatives and made mayors of Sonny Bono and Clint Eastwood. We've put Ronald Reagan in the White House and discussed, with some seriousness, the pros and cons of a Warren Beatty bid for the presidency. But it's one thing--and quite a familiar one--for a celebrity to use his or her fame to gain an audience for political causes, and another thing entirely for a politician to seek celebrity in other areas so as to then use it for political ends. Nelson, who is at his most passionate when talking about political and social reform, has ended up seeking to make his name in a realm in which issues of import take up very little of his time.
The Full Nelson--which airs in the unfortunate time slot of Saturday nights at 11:00 p.m. (with rebroadcasts at 3:00 a.m. and on Sundays at 11:00 p.m. and 3:00 a.m.) and is aimed at an audience of 20- to 45-year-olds--is sort of a cross between Politically Incorrect (ABC's late-night talk show hosted by Bill Maher), the old Phil Donahue Show, and an MTV pep rally, with Nelson garbed in Calvin Klein and amiably addressing panel and audience alike as "you guys." Guests tend to be journalists, comedians, actors, sports personalities, and the occasional right-wing zealot. For every serious debate about guns or prisons, there are many more segments on lighter topics such as "snooping" (would you read your boyfriend's diary?), sex etiquette (how do you tell a one-night stand to go sleep in his/her own bed?), and money (can it buy happiness?). The hour-long show generally investigates three different topics, which doesn't leave much time for substantive conversation. The evening I attended the show's taping, there was a segment on women who work on the business side of the porn industry, which featured two buxom porn execs debating Larry Flynt's antiporn daughter; a mildly interesting discussion of the NCAA and whether players should be paid; and a discussion of racial profiling too brief to really engage the issues.
Nelson gave me what he called a "producer's explanation" for the show's brief segments and consequent superficiality: The show appears in a tough time slot, opposite Saturday Night Live (not to mention actual Saturday night life); also, it's better to leave an audience wanting more than wanting to change the channel. This sounds like practical television tactics, but it's not of obvious use in a grand strategy for engaging the next generation with the significant issues of our time. So far The Full Nelson has fallen well short of educating, challenging, or even entertaining, which isn't surprising and isn't Nelson's fault. The problem with television is that it isn't real, and to try to use it to make politics seem real to us is fraught with contradiction. Nelson's show is no doubt dependent, in the way that all television is, on competition for time slots, on ratings and egos and whims. How can it also, then, be pure of message and intention? As host, Nelson drifts from awkward attempts to guide debate to flashes of wit or warmth, but he rarely shows the kind of passion he did when I talked to him about the things he really seems to care about. At times he seems the wrong guy for the job, but I couldn't let go of my feeling that, rather, it's the wrong job for the guy, and that, even as a means to gain a large following for his ideas, this is a waste of Nelson's time.
Or is it? In his book, Nelson proposes that to help people understand the political process we should have televised town meetings on various topics, hosted by talk show types like Oprah and news types from Ted Koppel to Larry King and "even Jerry Springer." Then he goes a step further, suggesting that "easily understood" materials be distributed everywhere from Starbucks to the movies to McDonald's, in order to "market the process, and the need to participate, just as we market anything else. We use celebrities, and humor, and sex." Whether this is thinking outside the box or simply silly, a generation's comfort with these methods isn't something to ignore.
It's hard to imagine the result of this approach being what Nelson envisions. Can caring about the future of America and its inhabitants be edgy and sexy and fun? And if we can't depend on the audience to remain tuned in for a longer, more in-depth view of the issues, what kind of participants will they make in Nelson's new, improved democracy? Will it be possible to separate the packaging from the substance? My gut answer is no. But I don't think Nelson should be so easily dismissed. The fact is, the traditional methods of encouraging political involvement aren't working, and they haven't been for a long time.
Thus far, Nelson has been more forthcoming on what-tos than on how-tos. But there's something appealing about his approach that makes me want his show to spin off a successful political movement. He is right that in our culture celebrities carry great power, and he is also right that the generations at which his show is aimed do care about the issues, and he is right to want to involve them. On the evening I attended the show's taping, the liveliest discussion of the issues came when the cameras were off and a member of the show's staff came out and asked audience members what they thought. They had plenty to say, and it seemed a shame that by this time, Nelson had disappeared to wherever celebrities go when the cameras are turned off. If he had come out and talked with them the way he did with me when I interviewed him later, he might have made the kind of connection he thinks--and I think--this generation is hungry for and ready for. Instead, by talking to them only while he was on camera, he was just another distant presence in a universe composed increasingly of distant presences that are barely processed by those who view them. The danger for Rob Nelson is that his quest for celebrity becomes so all-encompassing that his ideas fall by the wayside. The danger for the rest of us is that we won't even notice. ¤