Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Palin, Huckabee and the lure of star power

By John P. Avlon, CNN Contributor
April 4, 2012 -- Updated 2014 GMT (0414 HKT)
Jon Stewart, right, interviews Mike Huckabee on the 'The Daily Show
Jon Stewart, right, interviews Mike Huckabee on the 'The Daily Show" in September, 2008. Huckabee is now with Fox News.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Avlon: It's hard to run for office, and the lure of highly paid TV seems more attractive
  • Avlon: Palin goes on "Today" show, Huckabee declines to run and sticks with Fox news
  • A TV appearance is fine, but is no substitute for commitment to real public service, he says
  • Soundbites on a TV show are poor second to public debate, civic involvement, Avlon writes

Editor's note: John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is co-editor of the book "Deadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper Columns."

(CNN) -- It's tough to get quality people to run for political office these days. There's the cult-like polarization, the vicious mudslinging, and the cost to families and finances.

But there's a new trend which promises to make the problem much worse: It seems that people who have achieved elected office would rather be on TV.

Sarah Palin's appearance as a co-host on the "Today Show" was just the latest reminder that she walked away from the governor's mansion in Alaska after getting a taste for the bright lights. Yes, she told her constituents that she was looking out for their best interests by removing the distraction she had become. But the prospect of a lucrative cable news contract, a reality show and big-ticket speaking gigs was certainly a large part of the incentive.

In a way you can't blame her -- she got maximum compensation and minimum responsibility. But this shortcut to the financial side of the American Dream ignores the larger honor of being elected to serve in the first place. You don't walk away from that sacred trust of executive office because you'd rather be doing something else.

A variation on this theme can be also seen in Mike Huckabee -- a genial conservative and inspiring orator. It's now apparent that the former Arkansas governor could have been a real contender in the presidential campaign if he had chosen to compete. He could have quickly established himself as the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, and I believe he would now be the favorite in this race.

But Huckabee was making good money with a weekend show at Fox News. He was building a house in the Florida Panhandle and launched a nationally syndicated radio show that promises to compete head-to-head with Rush Limbaugh. I wish him all the success in the world. But I can't help but feel he passed up not only an opportunity, but also an obligation -- to do the hard thing and throw his hat in the ring.

Former governors like Eliot Spitzer and Jennifer Granholm, now hosting prime-time hours on the Al Gore-owned Current TV, are other recent examples of this trend.

Look, talking about politics on television is fun and purposeful. At its best it can help elevate the debate and cut through the self-interested partisan spin. But it is no substitute for the honor and opportunity of actually serving in elected office. That is the main event in politics -- a chance to make a difference directly in people's lives, rather than just the bank-shot of making a point in the public eye.

At the end of the day, the impulses to work in government or journalism should have some degree of overlap in the best sense: a commitment to civic debates, public policy and making a positive difference in the life of your city, state and nation.

I don't fault those political figures who, with their time in public service behind them, decide to remain engaged in the great debates through writing and television. Presidents like Calvin Coolidge and Theodore Roosevelt wrote newspaper columns in their sunset years after leaving office. But choosing to avoid the real arena for the comparative comfort of a TV studio seems like a softening of our democracy.

Maybe it reflects the frustrations of executive office in our era, a process surrounded by partisan land mines, polarized legislatures and legal red tape. The process of legislating in obscurity for low pay is another disincentive for public service, which explains why so many members of Congress and their staff cash out for jobs on K Street.

But when the lure of celebrity and luxury outweighs the responsibility of public service, it represents a challenge to our democracy. The people who have the honor of holding high elective office also have the obligation to lead by example. The bottom line is that we're in danger of getting it backward -- the broadcast studio is not the real bully pulpit.

Follow us on Twitter: @CNNOpinion.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 2148 GMT (0548 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT