Jayne Mansfield knew it. Whenever the blonde, buxom, modestly-talented starlet threatened to become lost amid the endless parade of up-and-coming bombshells Hollywood produced, Jayne found a way to display her breasts in view of a host of compliant paparazzi. Because Jayne knew the secret of success, she managed to support herself and her girls for years.

Buddy Hackett knew it. Whenever the moderately-amusing Catskills graduate threatened to disappear into the funny enough indistinguishable mass of Jack E. Leonards and Jack Carters and London Lees, Buddy would go onto The Tonight Show and say something obscene to get him bleeped. That would get him talked about and written about and boost his bookings. Because Buddy knew the secret of success, he managed to maintain a profitable show business career for decades.

Madonna knew it. Whenever the unremarkable pop star threatened to become eclipsed by other attractive warblers, Madonna would expose some part of her body or insult some sacred cow or so something provocative with a crucifix or a water bottle, and this would open a rich new vein of publicity that would help sell her albums and support her tours. Because Madonna knew the secret of success, she has become a beloved show business icon.

This spring, we have seen the flowering of a new phenomenon: politicians who have learned this secret of show business success. The new formula: run for president, say something outrageous, and cash in. Donald Trump, a man who has no aspirations to be president, no program for the nation, and no chance of winning, nonetheless floated the idea of his own candidacy. He then prosecuted the baseless allegation that President Obama was not native-born, and once that was decisively refuted, demanded to see Obama’s school transcripts. Having used the presidential bid to raise his profile and get the thing he always wanted–the renewal of his TV show–Trump retired his bod.

Sarah Palin has done the same thing. She clearly has no intention of running for president, but to retire form the race would immediately diminish her status. So she continues to refuse to announce, and continues to put no resources into building a presidential campaign, but continues to whisper and leak that she might be interested, and puts targets on her website and uses phrases like blood libel to continue to draw interest to herself. She’ll managle the story of Paul Revere and continue to push nasty’s inferences about Obama’s ancestry (“The perfect example of the media one- sidedness is Obama’s record not being explored. . .and now revelations of maybe some of his upbringing, some of his background, certainly his associations, how they impact his world view and how that affects his decisions today.”) She won’t run, but her bookings and fees will get one more bounce.

Newt Gingrich has done the same thing. As ABC News has reported, Gingrich has not held elective office since 1999, and now lives a life of luxury that includes a beautiful home, private jet travel, and, famously, a lot of jewelry. When he left Washington he was a busted valise, an ineffective partisan and political leader who’d been tainted by scandal. Still, he has managed to hold onto the tatters of a reputation of an incisive and innovative thinker that he once held, mostly by dangling his presidential potential, and by attacking Obama with blustery vehemence. “He is a food stamp president,” Gingrich has said. “He’s a natural secular European socialist. He is the opposite of freedom.” Gingrich’s entire staff quit when Gingrich went on a Mediterranean cruise instead of campaigning, but it matters little: Gingrich isn’t running to win; he’s running have a platform off of which he can launch partisan grenades and sell books and make speeches.

Remember: Jayne Mansfield never went to Cannes in order to win the Best Actress award. She went to Cannes because that was where she could find the most cameras, so that when she bent over, her cleavage could get the widest exposure. Same thing here: Trump and Palin and Gingrich don’t run for president to become president: running is just the thing they have to do to create their brand.

The newest member of their club may be Michele Bachmann, the comely Minnesota congresswoman. Bachmann says she is running for president and I have no reason to doubt her sincerity, but it’s true that the things she has to do now to run for president in 2012 are also what she has to do to become a well-rewarded wanna-be in 2013: campaign, seduce the media, and fling wild accusaions at Obama. So far she is running, and has accused Obama of anti-Americanism, infantilism, “turning our country into a nation of slaves,” and most bizarrely, secretly wanting Medicare to go broke so that he can force senior citizens onto “Obamacare”–which is actually Rep. Paul Ryan‘s plan for Medicare.

Bachmann is pursuing a risky strategy. I have this vision of her on election night in 2012. She’s just been elected president, and she’s crying. “Tears of joy?” inquires her dutiful husband.

“No, numbskull,” she replies. “I don’t want to be president! I want to be a windbag!”

[Cross-posted at JamieMalanowski.com]

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Jamie Malanowski

Jamie Malanowski is a writer and editor. He has been an editor at Time, Esquire and most recently Playboy, where he was Managing Editor.