`Full Nelson' to join political discourse

August 21, 1999|By David Daley | David Daley,HARTFORD COURANT

NEW YORK -- Return to the early 1990s, when people could still say "Generation X" without irony, when the twentysomethings who would fuel the Internet economy were still being derided as slackers, and Rob Nelson was heralded as a rising political star on the cover of U.S. News and World Report.

As the co-founder of the activist group Lead or Leave, Nelson challenged politicians to either cut the federal budget deficit in half and control runaway spending on entitlement programs or leave Washington by 1996.

Only by 1996, it was Nelson and his Lead or Leave partner Jon Cowan who disappeared from the D.C. scene. They were frustrated by politicians from both parties who seemed unwilling to reform the system. And other young activists who derided Nelson and Cowan for being more interested in TV appearances than the hard work of grass-roots coalition-building were only too happy to see them leave.

Now Nelson, 34, with a law degree from Stanford University, is trying to get back into the national dialogue again, this time where both his critics and supporters suggest he really belongs: on television.

His new weekly talk show, "The Full Nelson," has its premiere tonight on Fox News Channel, and Nelson hopes it will help influence the national political conversation in the same way Lead or Leave made the deficit and entitlement reform hot topics during the 1992 presidential campaign.

"We helped create a dialogue on those issues and put it in the mainstream, and yet, to this day, everybody talks about entitlements, and nobody wants to really reform them. I mean, nothing's changed," Nelson said over lunch recently in New York.

"We kind of realized we'd made as much headway as we were going to make. The likelihood of actually getting that reform required resources we didn't have. No matter how many people said they supported what we were doing, we didn't have the same clout as a bunch of old people who vote and really react viscerally against having anything done on this issue."

Nelson left Washington disillusioned but sure of one thing: The news media drive the national agenda. "That's where all the power is. If you're really honest about it, the media runs the world," he said.

Lead or Leave, founded in late 1991, raised more than $1.5 million, held two successful youth summits and registered almost 200,000 college students to vote.

But Nelson and Cowan were committed to a nonpartisan approach to issues and bringing both Democrats and Republicans to the table together to hash out tough solutions to tough problems. When the GOP captured Congress in 1994, the Republicans ratcheted up partisan pressure. Democrats and President Clinton, smarting from the repudiation of losing the House for the first time in 40 years, accused Republicans of trying to cut those popular entitlement programs in order to turn out their base among older voters.

"As we got into the post-'94 period, it got really ugly. Nobody wanted to help support an organization that might help the other side in any way," Nelson said.

"I personally felt I had other ways I could fight the battle. We always said we would close Lead or Leave after five years. After that, you become part of the problem."

For his new endeavor, Nelson knows exactly what he wants -- and doesn't want the show to be. He wanted to ask unpredictable questions that would throw guests off their prepared talking points. And, as host, he wanted to inject his point of view -- not to play the objective arbiter, but the curious inquisitor.

"You turn on `Nightline,' and you know in 15 seconds you might as well turn it off because there are not going to be any surprises. Imagine how exciting it would be if a politician came on and said, `You want to know the truth? Here's the deal. We knew Medicare would be a real hot button issue if we attacked Republicans with it, so we did.' But it doesn't happen.

"But it's still entertainment. I'm not going to pretend it isn't. This isn't a political campaign, and the show won't be all political topics. Hopefully, it will be what talk should be: smart, fun, engaging, but also entertaining enough so you'll actually watch it. If nothing else, if we just provoke people to go, `I've never thought of that before,' we'll have done more than most TV is doing."

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