The New York Times, in its wisdom, remains irony-challenged and doesn't know what to think about satirist and Comedy Channel host Stephen Colbert's decision to run – for something.
The newspaper of record asks, "Is it a run or [a] comedy riff?"
I guess in Timesland, it can't be both.
It is as if an entertainer running for president or becoming a politician is beyond the pale.
Ronald Reagan anyone? And what about Arnie Schwarzenegger? Remember him?
In Israel, a popular TV commentator has organised his own party. In Senegal, singer Youssou N'dour has announced his candidacy for the presidency. Years ago in Nigeria, the late Afro-beat king Fela Kuti was being touted as the next black president – until the military cracked down on his ambitions.
So what about Colbert?
Stephen Colbert introduced a new satirical TV political commercial Monday night and announced a shift in strategy, noting that the election authorities in South Carolina have blocked him from the Ballot. "I can't get on," he told his viewers, "but Herman Cain can't get off."
He then called on his supporters to vote for former GOP candidate Cain – to "raise Cain" – as a surrogate for his ambitions. At the same time, he insisted he is not coordinating his campaign plans with his Super Pac funding mechanism, now run by his business partner and fellow Comedy Channel host, Jon Stewart.
Reports the Times:
On Thursday night's "Colbert Report", Mr Colbert took it a big step further, handing control of his (Super Pac) group to his friend and fellow host Jon Stewart so that he can legally run for president, or at least pretend to. Mr Colbert, who has comically flirted with – and mocked the possibility of – runs for political office before, said he would form an "exploratory committee for president of the United States of South Carolina".
Riffing off his claimed dissatisfaction with the Republican front-runner, Mitt Romney, Mr Colbert has repeatedly suggested to his fans that he should hop in the race. A write-in bid in South Carolina, where Mr Colbert grew up, would almost certainly create some media excitement in the days leading up to the Jan. 21 primary, but probably less electoral excitement. And state officials say there isn't even roomfor write-in votes on South Carolina ballots.
Colbert's run came after a poll found that he enjoyed more popular support than New Hampshire's third place finisher, former US Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman.
There were some legal issues to dispose of before Colbert plunged in. He had to extricate himself from his Super PAC – a bizarre legal example of how big money has taken over politics. Even the Times admits, he has raised awareness viewers about what had been an obscure and corrupt arrangement that allows politicians to raise money without disclosing their supporters.
It allows them to appear to be distanced from their donors when they say or claim they are not "coordinating" their campaigns with their main and wholly owned campaign financing mechanisms.
Can this be serious or a riff on democracy?
Again, the Times:
Though humorous, Mr Colbert's discussions about Super PACs have had an educational and perhaps energising effect among some members of his young audience. When Mr Potter (Colbert's lawyer and Bush era federal election official) told the two comedians that "being business partners does not count as coordination, legally", there were groans of disgust from some in the studio audience.
It may be that Colbert underestimates the desire on the part of US voters for a candidate they can believe it, for an alternative choice to the look-alike/sound-alike Republicans/Democrats.
Obviously, all of this is easier said than done, because the two main parties have made it difficult for other candidates and third parties to participate.
The electoral officials in South Carolina say, unsurprisingly, that there isn't even room for write-in votes on South Carolina ballots. This reminded me of an election I covered in South Africa when, at the very last moment, another candidate was added by stickering printed ballots.
In other words, it could be done. They just don't want to do it.
The irony is that it is not Colbert that is the joker here, but the whole political process – which has become an auction more than an election – with TV pundits admitting it is a laughing stock, even as they legitimise it, while the TV ads bring revenues into the stations.
A political freak show
This has become a spectacle of candidates bouncing back and forth on their principles, and singing patriotic songs when they run out of ideas. You can't even compare with to a circus without demeaning circuses.
Politics has become a joke that someone should tell the New York Times about – with only seven per cent of people having any confidence in Congress, and most politicians lacking respect even if they do draw support in the absence of any credible alternative.
At the same time, there is resentment among some, who feel Colbert is most interested in promoting himself and his show. When I asked well-known South Carolina black activist Kevin Gray about his "campaign", he sneered and called on him to donate to grassroots organising.
The rest of the world is laughing not only at the politicians, but at a US electorate that seems to be taking the farce seriously.
The Week reports that "the candidates vie with one another to spew the most outrageous hard-right positions, denying evolution while endorsing torture and joking about electrocuting illegal immigrants". The magazine goes on to note that Marc Pitzke writes in the German weekly magazine Der Spiegel, that the Republican presidential contest is considered a "freak show" in his country.
"How," he asks, "did a major party in the world's sole superpower become a club of liars, debtors, betrayers, adulterers, exaggerators, hypocrites and ignoramuses?"
In France, Lorraine Millot writes in Liberation: "The only GOP candidate who knows a thing about diplomacy, Jon Huntsman, is dead last in most polls [and has since quit the race]. The others careen to extreme positions that include starting new wars and abandoning old allies'." Of Cain, she says: "He even boasted of knowing little about foreign countries. And yet it was his adultery, not his astounding ignorance that brought him down."
In Britain, Max Hastings refers in the conservative-leaning Daily Mail to "the lunatic, gun-toting badlands of America's Hicks-ville, Tea Party country". Sir Max, a former editor of the Daily Telegraph, concludes: "My bet is that Barack Obama will be returned to the White House next year, because he is opposed by grotesques and buffoons. But if you want to be kept awake at night between now and then, think of the alternative: one of the lunatics could win."
Fidel Castro says that if a robot were to run, "I am certain that 90 per cent of registered [to vote] Americans, especially Hispanics, Afro-Americans and the growing numbers of the impoverished middle class, would vote for the robot".
In this context, let's hope that Stephen Colbert has a wake-up call and realises that a riff is not enough in this context. And that he should do what history and his "Stephen, Stephen, Stephen" chanting fans demand. With a "tip of his hat and a wag of his finger", he should make a serious run.
Ok, it doesn't have to be all that serious. The funny thing is, however, if he did it for real, he may be visible enough to win.