Forget Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Forget Rudy Giuliani and Mike Huckabee. Right now, the most compelling presidential contender around is Stephen Colbert (see Page 21). It may seem preposterous that a comedian is running for the nation’s highest office, but Colbert actually is trodding a well-worn path. Back in 1940, Gracie Allen ran as the candidate of the Surprise Party, dispensing with a vice president because she wanted no vice in the White House. In 1968, the hound-dog–faced Pat Paulsen ran for the presidency with deadpan earnestness. In 1984, Bozo the Clown himself stopped by my college campus, promising that a vote for Bozo was a vote for more laughs and more love. Given what usually follows presidential elections, I was sorely tempted.
The line between politics and comedy, of course, has always been blurry. But in recent years, it’s also become difficult to discern the line between politics and entertainment. Ronald Reagan walked off the silver screen to become governor of California. So did Arnold Schwarzenegger. When he ran for president the first time, Bill Clinton knocked ’em dead by donning sunglasses and playing the sax on Arsenio Hall’s late-night show. Fred Thompson, a senator turned television actor, returned to TV to announce his candidacy on The Tonight Show. Today, the professionals who manage presidential campaigns—and presidents—are only too aware of the importance of stagecraft. That’s why, back in 2003, George W. Bush donned a form-fitting flight suit and strutted onto the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln to declare the end of major combat operations in Iraq. Whoever succeeds Bush in the White House, you can be sure of this: He or she, too, will know how to act. - Thomas Vinciguerra