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July 30, 2013 12:09 PM If Politics Is So Easy, Why Can’t Journalists Do It?

By Christopher Flavelle

Chrystia Freeland, a columnist and senior editor at Thomson Reuters, said last week that she’s quitting her job to run for political office in Canada, where she was born. Freeland is an accomplished journalist and the author of a book on income inequality, and she would raise the IQ of the Liberal Party, for which she’s seeking a nomination in Toronto. We should want more people like her in office. So why does it seem like the odds are against her?

The precedents don’t help. In Canada, journalists have mostly made for poor politicians. The author Michael Ignatieff won the leadership of the same party Freeland is now running for, only to lead it to third place and his resignation in something like ignominy. Two prominent television journalists, Pamela Wallin and Mike Duffy, became right-wing senators, only to bring the Senate to new lows of disrepute by egregious fudging on their expenses. Peter Kent went from being a respected news anchor to a not-terribly-well respected minister of the environment.

The record in the U.S. offers fewer prominent examples, but they seem to have fared better. Al Franken was a great comedian and a so-so pundit, but his career as a senator seems promising. Samantha Power worked as a freelance journalist in Africa; won a Pulitzer Prize for her book, “A Problem From Hell,” on genocide and American policy; and went on to wield influence on the same topic inside the administration of President Barack Obama. The Congressional Research Service notes 20 members of Congress who worked in journalism at some point, though not necessarily right before taking office. Few have risen to the highest levels.

(Journalists may instead prefer to see themselves as following in the steps of their counterparts across the Atlantic. Winston Churchill became a hero covering the Boer War, and Boris Johnson, now mayor of London, was editor of the Spectator before entering Parliament.)

Given the importance of name recognition in politics, and presumably the importance of knowing about the issues, why aren’t more former journalists better at the game? The obvious answer is that professional politics, like any other pursuit, is harder than it looks, and somebody coming from a successful career covering government may mistakenly believe they know what they’re doing.

This leads to the risk that big-name recruits will be used to burnish a party’s credentials, or underline its commitment to a certain message, in a way that may not necessarily advance their own careers. That may be the case with Freeland, whose recruitment by the Liberal Party serves to create buzz and underline its focus on income inequality, even if she doesn’t win.

So why do they do it? For the same reasons as anyone else — both good (altruism) and less good (vanity, boredom). But there may be something about politics that’s particularly appealing for journalists, especially those who write about the failure of policy makers to fix chronic problems. You can only cover something for so long before you start to wonder if you couldn’t do a better job. And if you decide you can (usually an uncertain proposition) then being invited to take a shot, as Freeland was, must have a certain appeal.

It’s too soon to consign Freeland to the fate of her predecessors. Presumably the Ignatieff debacle prevented her from making the decision casually, and she must be aware of the very real possibility that she won’t win the nomination. So you have to admire her for trying, and if she wins, the country will probably be better off. Either way it will make a great book.

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Christopher Flavelle is a columnist for Bloomberg View.