As Sarah Palin clearly understands, this is the era of the celebrity politician — and the politician as pundit.
Politicians are popping up in some seemingly unlikely places: on social media outlets, reality TV, cable news channels, the glossy covers of celebrity weeklies.
This might rankle some citizens who value elected officials' voting records and credentials over their performances on "Dancing With the Stars." But is the blurring of the lines between politics and entertainment, or news and politics, always a bad thing?
Not according to two prominent public servants with their own talk shows on Current TV — California's Lieutenant Gov. Gavin Newsom (“The Gavin Newsom Show”) and former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (“The War Room with Jennifer Granholm”).
Though Granholm’s not partial to Palin’s brand of politics, she thinks her own viewers benefit from her experience in office, and she's pleased she doesn't have to censor herself on the air.
For his part, Newsom believes their bosses at the cable network, including, of course, Current chairman Al Gore, are staking a unique claim in the crowded cable-news field by giving politicians like themselves and former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer a televised platform.
Newsom and Granholm recently talked to TheWrap about how they see Current's blend of left-leaning politics and news playing out in the broader media landscape, how programs like theirs contribute to the national discourse in an election year and which big names from the intertwined worlds of entertainment and politics they’re hoping will make cameos on their shows.
How did you get your shows on Current?
Newsom: As mayor of San Francisco I had a weekly radio show, and as lieutenant governor I thought, I should start that again. I initially thought I’d do a YouTube version of the radio show. Then I ran into [Current co-founder and CEO] Joel Hyatt at the Sundance Film Festival, where my wife had a film screening, and I asked if he had extra equipment or things I could borrow.
So we set up a meeting, and instead of just Joel being there, David [Bohrmann, Current TV president] was there as well and said, “Would you ever think about doing something a little more serious?” I candidly had not at that stage. The conversation went on for about three weeks, and I think a month later we were doing our first show.
But the most important question that we still have not answered, I will confess, is whether I can [do the show].
Granholm: I would say that you should have answered that before you went on the air.
Newsom: There’s nothing in the law that says you can’t, as a sitting elected official — but there is also nothing that says you can. Right before an election I would not be able to continue, but the first question for all of us was whether you can do this.
Granholm: I, on the other hand, can totally do it — I’m completely unencumbered. I had not a whit of thought of doing anything like this.
I was doing a whole bunch of stuff in energy, and I was teaching at Berkeley, and Al Gore called out of the blue and said, “We’ve got this network, and this is a really important election. We want to do a political show about the election — would you be interested in helping?” And I went, “Get out!”
But then I got home and talked to my husband — we’re constantly battling over the remote, because I always am on cable TV watching and talking back to the TV — and he said, “Come on, you love this stuff. You breathe it! Just do it for the fun of it.”
So what are you focusing on at this particular moment, in the thick of the election season?
Granholm: For me, Mitt Romney is the poster child for my frustrations. I’ll just say that. Because he’s from Michigan. Because his father was the governor of Michigan. I sat as governor in the Romney building knowing this whole history backwards and forwards. Know what it was like to have been in the middle of this automotive meltdown when Mitt Romney, son of Michigan, said “Let Detroit go bankrupt”?
And when I ran for re-election I had a similar situation as President Obama on a much smaller scale. First woman governor, the economy was in meltdown, I ran against a billionaire, business guy — all of that was very similar.
Newsom: I’m not focused on who’s to blame; I want to focus on what to do — it’s a political show, and I haven’t had one politician on yet. But we talk policy, which to me is the best politics. The focus of the show is, you know, politics is not just getting elected — governing is a lot more important than getting elected. I want to distill and explain the best I can with folks that are truly crafting that future. The solutions to our problems are literally now in our hands.
Do you think of your show as a forum where you can effect change in any significant way?
Granholm: I wouldn’t be doing it if it weren’t. I told them I will not do this unless it has impact. And that’s what I told our team: You are all journalists, serious reporters — we want to stoke action.
I’m sure you’re familiar with the critique about all the different niche news channels catering to a specific audience — MSNBC, Fox News and Current among them. Is there a sense of not being able to reach people outside of an already conscripted world view? How does Current function in the broader scheme?
Granholm: Yes, yes and yes. I mean, yes, it is very narrow, so you end up preaching to the choir, and people find you because they want to hear what you have to say, and yes, that causes a lack of unity among the country where we don’t all experience the same thing in a similar way.
On the flip side of that, I think for someone like me anyway, it’s so incredibly freeing to not be censored in any way, shape or form. To have the freedom to be able to totally express how I feel without having some sort of overlord saying, “You’re gonna offend this person, this person and this person." So, Current is unique in that way of all the cable networks, I think, because it doesn’t have a big player on top of it.
Newsom: It was my only fear taking this show besides saying something I shouldn’t — or not saying something, which I’m learning is the bigger risk … not responding to something you heard or not leaning in or expressing discontent or pleasure, depending on your point of view. But the ability to be myself and authentic and to have the guests on that I wish and to have conversations — not once have those been questioned.
How do you think the role of the politician in the media has changed? It seems like the barriers between politician and commentator aren't so rigid anymore.
Newsom: What a wonderful revolving, open door in this case. I mean, rather than disappearing into the private sector. To have a conversation with all that experience fresh in mind and the ability to dissect and understand what’s being said and what’s not being said and why and how they’re positioning – what an enriching experience for the public.
I mean, you listen, not just to Gov. Granholm but also Gov. [Eliot] Spitzer on Wall Street, and the relevance of what he’s saying to his whole history — it’s unique in every respect. You don’t get that from the intellectual experts that haven’t had the real granular experience to understand the decision-making process in the public realm.
Granholm: It is interesting, though — your question speaks to the new media era where political figures end up becoming seamless with celebrity. Think of Sarah Palin, for example. In that case, I don’t think it’s healthy at all — because I don’t think that her brand of politics is healthy. But I do think that to an extent that it makes political life more accessible to people because they can see it and touch people in different ways than physically having to be at a speech that Gavin Newsom is giving.
I think that’s good, because I would hope that we’re all using this platform to encourage people to engage, to encourage people to think about running for office. We do need good people to step up.
Newsom: Was it always that way? I mean, 20 years ago? It seems now that it’s dominant — celebrity culture in politics.
Granholm: Look at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Current all went to the dinner together. And so we all go to the red carpet and there’s this phalanx of photographers, like we’re celebrities. And all of a sudden we’re standing there and somebody yells, “Move! Get out of there!” And we look behind and who is it? Uggie the dog. And then Sofia Vergara right behind that. “Get out of here, you losers!”
You’re maybe B-list at this point.
Granholm: I’d say C, D, E or F.
Who's a guest that you most want to bring on your show but haven't yet?
Granholm: Celebrity? George Clooney. But obviously politically I’d love to interview one of the top five: the Clintons, the Obamas, the Bidens.
Granholm: Romneys, too. Come on, baby! We’ve offered — we’ve extended the invitation openly.
Newsom: I confess, I haven’t. But I would — of course, that would be great.
Newsom: All of the above – including Clooney.