This morning Caroline McCarthy used her Social blog post to agonize over whether or not the announcement Stephen Colbert made of his intention to get on both the Democratic and Republican ballots for the presidential primary should be taken as truth or "truthiness." Almost immediately, she received a comment to the effect that Colbert is hardly less qualified than Fred Thompson. Whether or not this is true (and we at least know a thing of two about Thompson's track record in government service), qualification is not the issue. The real issue is more complex and is therefore worth exploring.
When we watch Law & Order, we see Fred Thompson playing the role of Arthur Branch, who is a relatively sympathetic character due to his ability to cool down hotheads without losing touch with a basic sense of right and wrong. We could do a lot worse that having someone like Branch in the White House. The problem is that Fred Thompson is not Arthur Branch; he just plays the guy on television! This is the old "media equation" phenomenon that Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass managed to inflate into a book back in the days when everyone was still in the thrall of Wired magazine. It does not take an awful lot of attention to identify all the ways in which Thompson's own character differs from Branch's; and the media is doing a reasonably good job (with a fair amount of assistance from Thompson himself) in raising public awareness of those differences.
Colbert is another matter. He, too, is an actor who has developed a fascinating (if not exactly nuanced) character. The problem is that the name of the character he portrays is "Stephen Colbert!" My guess is that Stephen Colbert the actor is not anything like the Stephen Colbert character he portrays on television. I may be wrong; but I just feel that the latter (fictitious) character is just too well-designed to be "authentically human." So which Colbert is running for the presidency? My guess is that, in this case, it will actually be the fictitious character; and the "real" Colbert is basically running a "social experiment" to see just how far he can take his act. This may not be so big a deal. After all, every other candidate is providing us with a public face that has been finely crafted by an image maker. Why can't Colbert just be his own image maker, given how good he is at image making? (It's probably a lot better than the proverbial man who chooses to serve as his own lawyer!)
Perhaps that is the game that the "real" Colbert is playing. Going on at great length about the impact of image makers on the political system just does not play that all well among the voting public. Demonstrating the role that image making plays, on the other hand, might have more of an effect. Perhaps Colbert has found the right way to get us all to look at the other candidates and ask what kind of an act each of them is playing. If this is the case, then I applaud his experiment but would like to remind him that there are now various regulations regarding how such experiments should be conducted when the subjects are human!