Politics & Policy

The Trouble with Celebrity Endorsements

Oprah and Obama combine forces to destroy us all.

Usually celebrity endorsements are a matter of whack-a-mole for political journalists. Every election cycle they pop up and the Fourth Estate gets to bash candidates for aligning themselves to superficial dilettantes who think that anyone who can’t afford to shop at Fred Segal is worthy of government handouts. So when OprahObamaPalooza broke, like any responsible journalist in the End Times, I went back to nursing a martini and watching Keeping Up With The Kardashians.

It’s obvious why candidates like celebrity endorsements. Celebrity appearances generate bigger turnouts at campaign events — as was the case in South Carolina when 50,000 people turned out for a recent Oprah-Obama love festival. However, when celebrity endorsements are overhyped, it usually results in some sort of backlash.

But much to my chagrin and the republic’s detriment, political commentators are raving about Oprah Winfrey’s recent appearances on the campaign trail in support of Barack Obama.

According to MSNBC, Oprah’s campaign appearances have been “folksy and funny.” Pollster John Zogby, no doubt using one of his patented statistical methodologies, explained that Oprah’s endorsement means more than conventional celebrity endorsements “because she bonds with the heart.” The always objective Associated Press ran with the headline “Oprah Dazzles Crowds for Obama.” Even conservative commentators seem to think her support will help.

Now I’m not blind to reality here. Oprah’s endorsement is significant. She’s the embodiment of a success previously unheard for a woman, let alone a black woman a few decades ago. Standing next to the Illinois senator, it reinforces the message that if she can achieve such great heights, America is ready for a black president.

For the record, I think this country is ready for a black president, though that’s a separate question than whether America should vote for Barack Obama. In fact, at the moment chief among my questions about his fitness for office is why he would want to stand on a stage next to Oprah Winfrey.

Sure, capitalizing on her popularity seems like an obvious move for Obama. But while Oprah’s legions may be loyal, but the fact they swallow what she’s selling says a lot about their collective intelligence.

Remember, Oprah endorsed the obviously embellished memoirs of fabulist James Frey who gave false hope to many with his heroic — and fictional — approach to conquering drug addiction. Then there’s her high-profile support of The Secret, a pernicious self-help phenomenon that tells people they can physically realize their dreams by merely wishing for them. The creators of The Secret claim quantum physics proves all this and, well, if your dreams don’t come true you’re not doing it right. Physicist Niels Bohr, one of the pioneers of quantum physics, famously said, “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.” Well, I’m shocked that anyone would believe something as cockamamie as The Secret, so it must be true!

Naturally, like most everything else Oprah touches, The Secret is nothing more than one big marketing scheme. Except unlike her other marketing schemes, instead of squeezing cash out of a desire to lose weight or improve one’s marriage — this one actually sucks her audience’s bank accounts dry by exploiting the actual process of hoping and dreaming, leaving a consumerist sack of meat where a person with a soul once was.

Perhaps you doubt my doubt about the power of The Secret. So I propose an experiment. Obama supporters should follow Oprah’s advice and spend the rest of the election cycle doing nothing else but wishing Obama into the Oval Office. Don’t write any checks, don’t volunteer, and for heaven’s sake don’t vote.

Of course, Oprah’s problems recognizing quality literature or valuable self-help mechanisms have not shamed her into humbly describing the candidate she supports. In Des Moines, Oprah called Obama “a politician who has an ear for eloquence and a tongue dipped in the unvarnished truth.” Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll go dip my tongue in Ipecac at the thought of Oprah being the arbiter of “the unvarnished truth.”

But mere compliments aren’t enough for Oprah. As Rich Lowry has noted, Obama is the messiah and it only follows then that she’s John the Baptist paving the way. “It’s a question that the entire nation is asking — is he the one?” Winfrey said at the South Carolina rally. “South Carolina — I do believe he’s the one.” Perhaps the real reason the Obama campaign needed to move the Oprah rally in South Carolina to a football stadium was not that they needed the extra seating capacity, but rather they needed room to fit their collective egos.

To be fair, Obama is not the only one who’s gotten into the celebrity-endorsement game. Much has been made of Chuck Norris endorsing Mike Huckabee, though I’m not sure why. Norris has spent his entire career convincing the public he can’t determine whether or not a screenplay is any good, let alone a policy document.

But while Obama and Huckabee may be lost causes, I’ll take the time to remind the candidates that celebrity endorsements still mean little. Otherwise John Kerry would be in the White House. Practically name a celebrity and they endorsed Kerry.

One of the more revealing moments from the 2004 campaign, comes from the documentary …So Goes the Nation, which followed the Kerry campaign in Ohio, the state that ultimately decided the election. The Kerry campaign bussed in a bunch of celebrities to “help” with the effort.

Any campaign adviser who thinks employing celebrities on the campaign trail is a good idea should watch the documentary. The Kerry campaign had so many celebrities at their disposal they didn’t know what to do with them. So they sent them out on the streets to talk to voters.

Watching a dejected Fisher Stevens — a D-list celebrity who’s claim to fame includes starring in Short Circuit and dating Michelle Pfeiffer for a brief period in the 80s following what I assume was a head injury on her part — being out-argued by some annoyed yokel in the parking lot of a high-school football game is priceless. As is the footage of Brendan Fraser oh-so-earnestly talking politics. Trust me, it’s a heck of a lot funnier than Encino Man.

Of course, the affable Fraser was merely misguided. Those celebrities who actually take their political action seriously are an outright liability. Sean Penn recently gave what was billed as a “Major Political Address” wherein the Academy Award winner would deliver “a blistering indictment of political leaders and an impassioned endorsement of Presidential proportions” in favor of Dennis Kucinich.

Good grief. The press release announcing Penn’s speech was cringe inducing. It’s hard to imagine such egotistical hyperbole would improve Kucinich’s chances, but, then again, hell will be a skating rink for disadvantaged youth before he’s president. But don’t worry, if Kucinich doesn’t win, Penn has also donated money to John Edwards.

But as incredible as it seems, our only hope may be that celebrities will wise up. In May, uber-liberal George Clooney, no doubt shamed by being mocked on the cover of National Review, conceded to Time magazine “Actors have done a lot of damage to candidates lately.”

Johnny Depp handled the matter even more gracefully and succinctly when recently asked who he was endorsing. “Pat Paulsen,” he said, naming the now deceased comedian who repeatedly ran for President. It was the right answer. Depp’s cracked the code. It’s hard to tell who’s the bigger joke — the celebrities who endorse candidates or those who think it matters.

— Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.

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