Politics & Policy

Beltway Goes Hollywood?

The endless celebrity possibilities in politics.

The supermodel-thin distinction between the worlds of entertainment and high politics is disappearing, and fast. Earlier this month we learned that Jerry Springer, of racy talk-show fame, will not be running for the Senate in Ohio; while Arnold Schwarzenegger, of “Mr. Olympia” fame, will be running for governor of California.

Why now? “For a long time, celebrities have lobbied politicians and spoken out about various public matters,” Darrell West, professor of political science and public policy at Brown University, and author of the charming Celebrity Politics, told me. “But now (celebrities) are running for office and many of these candidates do quite well. In an era of citizen cynicism, voters sometimes see famous people from outside the world of politics as white knights untainted by partisan political dealings.”

The whole sordid church-and-state mixture began this past June, when Hillary Clinton released her biography, Living History, amid the kind of glitz and glamour more typically associated with Graydon Carter’s annual Oscar bash. At a Rockefeller Center signing for the freshman junior senator’s book, lines wrapped around the block. You could almost have believed that Christmas tickets for the Rockettes were on sale — or even, say, the latest Harry Potter book. Earlier this summer, the senator’s husband was voted number 18 on VH1′s list of the “200 Greatest Pop Culture Icons,” in what the AP described as “a 10-episode ranking of actors, musicians, politicians, academics, sports figures and fictional characters.” Oprah Winfrey was number 1 on that list.

Bill Clinton is certainly one of the architects of the blurred line between pop culture and politics. Whether discoursing on boxers and briefs or blowing a mean sax on Arsenio Hall, Clinton was a extremely savvy at courting the celebrity culture. And speaking of Oprah, it was on The Oprah Winfrey Show — in September 2000, during the crunch days of that infamous election — that Vice President Al Gore appeared in search of women voters. One writer observed:

Gore talked, endlessly it seemed, about Tipper Gore. Oprah asked how he had reacted to the news of Tipper’s depression. He did what he had to, he said, which was to “feel the love and start the healing.” He touted his wife’s work in protecting American kids from those “albums that are inappropriate,” something the Gores played down in 1992. He once gave Tipper a bracelet, he told everyone, inscribed, “To the bravest person I know.”

Of course, despite the recent intense media spotlight, Schwarzenegger is hardly the first celebrity to have tried to exploit his star power to climb up to political office. Former Senator Fred Thompson recently joined the cast of NBC’s Law and Order as District Attorney Arthur Branch. Before that, he appeared in 18 motion pictures, including Cape Fear and In The Line of Fire. (One assumes Thompson will prefer the company of cast members like ex-pimp Ice T to that of the scoundrels in the United States Senate.)

The Hollywood-Washington nexus has also included Clint Eastwood, who was, for a time, the mayor of Carmel, Calif., as well as the late Sonny Bono, who served both in Congress and as mayor of Palm Springs. Bollywood stars in India routinely hook up with one political party or another to speak on issues they care about. Celebrities and rich businessmen in California often spend their time and money on initiatives. And in New York City, even as we speak, Russell Simmons has been running around Albany with former HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo, trying to repeal the state’s Rockefeller Drug Laws.

Even before Springer and Arnold made their announcements, Professor West had noted: “We should not be surprised that Arnold Schwarzenegger may run for governor and Jerry Springer for the Senate. It is the age of celebrity politics. You no longer need to be a politician to seek political office. Indeed, during some time periods, it is an advantage for a candidate to come from outside the political mainstream.”

It is also an advantage, in the new Hollywood, for the brightest stars to come from the B-List. Even as the fortunes of the traditional A-lister began to wane (particularly since Reality TV hit the air), a new cultural phenomenon, the B-lister, was in the ascendant. The rise of the reality-TV star feeds the democratic leveling of all distinctions that Tocqueville warned us of at the outset of our democratic experiment.

Even the grand and aristocratic Liz Smith has been complaining of late about the decidedly unglamorous turn of events as the reality-TV types crowd out the ancien regime of Old Hollywood glamour. As our pugnacious Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld lashed out at “Old Europe,” Radar magazine was lashing out at “Old Hollywood”:

B-Listers are a refreshing antidote to A-Listers, who, frankly, have

become a tedious pain in the ass. Where the A’s are demanding and spoiled

and wear their celebrity like a hair shirt, the B’s are accessible, attention-hungry eager beavers.

As a result, we now have people like the Hilton Sisters, Johnny Knoxville, Sophie Dahl, Nicole Ritchie, Justin Guarini, and Kelly Clarkson jazzing up the news, while Nicole Kidman, Adrian Brody, Tom Cruise, Denzel Washington, and even the once-ubiquitous Madonna have become, well, as irrelevant as Old Europe. No high-powered A-list p.r. person worth her bottled water and Botox is going to allow a bombshell of a revelation to make it into a cover story. And we know this. How many celebrity puff-job features do we have to read on Catherine Zeta-Jones before we rush for our Big Velvet Teddy Bear, Reuben Studdard? In the end, we know what Denzel and Julia Roberts have to say on any given matter; but who knows what Knoxville or Paris Hilton might be up to living their vida loca? So, it would seem, the A-listers have already lost their luster.

Meanwhile, several new opportunities in celebrity politics have opened up as a result of the Demi Moore-Ashton Kutcher romance. Now, celebrity romance is hardly a new phenomenon; but once you get two solid B-listers, well, then you have a party. I’ve applied some simple algebra to all this bling-bling. My Iron Law of Celebrity Equation goes something like this: B Lister (Ashton, Cameron, Ben Affleck) + B Lister (Demi, Justin, J-Lo) = A-List.

As a corollary to the Iron Law of Celebrity Equation above, I had proposed the following equation, hereafter called the Arnold Corollary: Hollywood + Washington = A-List.

Of course, the formula does not necessarily refer to Washington and Hollywood per se — just the point at which the entertainment and political worlds in any given culture meet. The celebrity-politics phenomenon is becoming global. Last June in Taiwan, two celebrity politicians got into some trouble. One was a former actress named May Chin, who starred in the art-house film The Wedding Banquet, directed by Oscar-winner Ang Lee; the other was a retired professional basketball star, Cheng Chih-lung: They were accused of having an affair. Both Cheng (of the People First Party) and Chin (an independent) were elected in December 2001. The Taiwanese media breathlessly covered the story, complete with its added pinch of scandal — all very A-list, I assure you.

So, who are the next celebrity politicians? Russell Simmons seems to be angling for city or statewide office in New York. Barbara Streisand has spent thousands on politics and could be a candidate for all manner of public office. Robert Redford has been mentioned as a possible Senate candidate in Utah for years. Alec Baldwin has always had an eye on a congressional or Senate seat in New York, though his acrimonious split with ex-wife Kim Basinger might make things messy. Bulworth star Warren Beatty, the architect of the Hollywood-Washington Democratic fundraising link, weighed in on a third-party run in the 2000 election, but ultimately decided against it: Could he still have a future in Washington?

SAG President Melissa Gilbert, who made many hearts flutter with her revealing dress at the Golden Globes this year, would be a fetching candidate for the Senate one day. The regal Candace Bergen, who is no stranger to making donations to Democratic women candidates, would be a wonderful match for the Senate as well. Or how about Michael Douglas, who played an American president in The American President? How about the brainy Jeff Goldblum for Congress? Or even Hollywood’s Everyman, Tom Hanks, as a Republican senator? Or Sylvester Stallone?

The possibilities are endless, the tabloids are at the ready, and we, the public, are on the edge of our seats. Celebrity politicians are here to stay.

Ron Mwangaguhunga is former editor of MacDirectory. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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