Rendell exploits his brand.

Going from the limelight to more limelight

Posted: January 06, 2011

Remember Cincinnatus?

He's the Roman famed for serving as consul and as dictator. His work done, he gave up power and went back to the plow.

Ed Rendell, though? No plow for him.

On Monday, the soon-to-be-ex-governor of Pennsylvania said in a news conference that he had signed up with the William Morris Agency, where he'll be represented by the office of Henry Reisch, a vice president at the company. (Reisch had no immediate comment.) Rendell is all but assured of a long, voluble career as speaker, TV pundit, author, well-compensated corporate board member.

"Rendell loves punditry," G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College, writes by e-mail. "He certainly does not want to practice law or do rainmaking at a law firm."

Is such open jockeying for a media future distasteful? Unseemly? The feeling is still out there - or is it? - that our public servants should retire, like Cincinnatus, to the plow.

Well, they don't. It's been a while since they did. Like since 438 B.C.

Three circles of pol. Today, public office is only one stage of a politician's life. In pre-life, the would-be officeholder opines in public, publishes opinions, harvests eyeballs in print, on the air, on the Web.

Then there's the actual office-holding.

That done, a long afterlife awaits, a nirvana of speaking dates, cable-TV talk shows, and books (Rendell is writing one, all by himself). And in that afterlife, you don't need to have been elected to anything. It even helps to have lost. Think of Pat Buchanan, Alan Keyes, Arianna Huffington, or William F. Buckley.

Ed Rendell is set up nicely for cable TV. Affable, hearty, verbal, he likes to mix it up with a smile. Just great around a table. "And the cable producers find him refreshing," writes Madonna. "He's provocative and unpredictable, two qualities they love. He will also not just toe the party line. He is fast on his feet and has a sense of humor. He has made no bones about the fact that he wants a cable job."

Rendell keeps his lip but loosely buttoned. On Comedy Central's Colbert Report Monday, he made the still-reverberating crack that we are "a nation of wusses." In 2008, stumping for Hillary Rodham Clinton and not for Barack Obama, he said that "there are some whites who are probably not ready to vote for an African American candidate." And last September, he lambasted "fruit loops" and "flat-out crazy" folks on the extreme right.

But he's also thumbed his own party in the eye. When the stimulus debate turned against Obama last year, Rendell remarked on ABC's The Week that "the best communicator in the history of political campaigning turned out in his first year in office to not communicate very well." Over the summer, he said a Democratic challenge in 2012 to Obama was "really possible" (a remark since withdrawn), and he questioned Obama for appearing on ABC's daytime show The View.

So cable should love Ed Rendell.

Beyond cable talk, there's membership on boards of power throughout the land. This, the most rarefied form of lobbying, is how powerful men and women keep exerting influence on their pet issues. Tom Kean of New Jersey has served for UnitedHealth, Pepsi, Aramark, CIT, Hess, and Franklin Templeton Investments. Of thee I ka-ching! Madonna speculates that ultimately Rendell might "maybe work for his best friend David Cohen at Comcast - after they buy NBC Universal . . . ?"

Self-selling made eternal. By definition, politicians are brands, just by serving in high-profile public offices. "Politics has always been self-branding," e-mails Dan Schawbel, a personal branding expert based in Boston and author of Me 2.0. "In order to run a successful political campaign, you have to build a significant brand. No one will vote for you if they haven't heard of you!"

Call it cynical, or say old pols never die, but in going from politics to punditry, politicians just keep doing what they've always done. Every public line Ed Rendell delivers - from his hometowner cheerleading as color man at Eagles broadcasts to Monday's "wusses" moment - builds Brand Rendell. No stroke is wasted. "As a politician," Schawbel says, "you become influential, connected, and visible, which are three critical components of successful brand building, and opportunities always follow."

Joining a speakers bureau is pretty much what you do once you leave office. Governors especially. Jeb Bush finished as Florida governor in 2007 and soon signed with Washington Speakers Bureau, one of the big, elite outfits, which also represents George and Laura Bush, Colin Powell, and Rudy Giuliani. Sarah Palin quit as governor of Alaska in July 2009, and right away (or even sooner) joined the same bureau.

Mike Huckabee, former Arkansas governor and reputed presidential hopeful, is with Premier Motivational Speakers; his mates there include Fox News guys Glenn Beck and Oliver North, and Republican National Committee head Michael Steele. Some governors sign up while still in office, if their states' rules allow. One is reputed presidential hopeful Tom Pawlenty, ex-gov of Minnesota, who joined Leading Authorities in September, while still serving; his stablemates include Al Sharpton, retired general Stanley McChrystal, and former N.J. governor Jon Corzine. (Bill Clinton, for the record, is with the Harry Walker Agency, along with Karl Rove and Stephen Colbert.)

Cultural convergence. Since at least the John F. Kennedy administration, the world labeled politics has fused with the world labeled celebrity. Right now, Palin and Huckabee are TV personalities, not public officeholders. Much as Jacqueline Kennedy once was, Michelle Obama is a fashion leader, as prominent in her fashion choices as Agyness Deyn.

"The worlds of media, politics, and celebrity completely overlap now," Schawbel says, "and I believe we're all celebrities to some degree (micro-celebs). The reason is because we all have followers and fans on social networks, such as Facebook, and we're all known by other people. Politicians and Hollywood celebrities just command a lot more attention than normal people do, and therefore there are more significant monetization opportunities for them. If you can attract people, then you can attract dollars."

Some still profess shock at those who go from public life to the pricey-pullet circuit. When Ronald Reagan ended his presidency, he immediately drew scorn for accepting $2 million for a nine-day visit to Japan in 1989. But ex-presidents have been getting big bucks for speeches and book advances for a very long time. Once-and-future candidates do, too - think of Palin's $4 million advance for Going Rogue in 2009. (Only half, by the way, of Rolling Stone Keith Richards' $8 million for his autobio, Life.)

So the pre-life, life, and afterlife of the politician - an arc Ed Rendell represents with guffawing brio - is woven deep into American life. While we think of Kennedy and Reagan and Clinton as celebridents, our first was George Washington himself, often lovingly compared to - Cincinnatus.

Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406, or