Stagecraft and Statecraft: The Real Question Is Not Whether Celebrities Should Have Political Clout, but How They Use It

By Alter, Jonathan | Newsweek, October 11, 1999 | Go to article overview

Stagecraft and Statecraft: The Real Question Is Not Whether Celebrities Should Have Political Clout, but How They Use It


Alter, Jonathan, Newsweek


Jesse Ventura fancies himself a kingmaker, but he may get outclassed by another celebrity with a shaved head. Last spring Bill Bradley received a campaign contribution from a man described on Federal Election Commission records as "Michael Jordan, retired," and the betting is that former Bulls coach Phil Jackson, one of Bradley's closest friends, will prevail upon Jordan to come off the bench at a key moment and campaign with Bradley. For Democrats, the big voting blocs in Southern states on March 14 are African-American. Al Gore still has the advantage here because most black voters are emphatically unfatigued by Bill Clinton; they love him. Clinton will no doubt campaign vigorously for Gore in black churches and elsewhere, and those Southern states are the vice president's insurance policy if he loses New Hampshire and New York, where he now trails. But Gore had better pray Jordan doesn't suit up.

Such is the reach of renown in American life. I first learned not to scoff at celebrity endorsements when I watched Michael Dukakis lose the governorship of Massachusetts in 1978 after Boston Red Sox star Carl Yastrzemski gave a timely endorsement to his opponent. Nolan Ryan's stalwart pitching support helped George W. Bush go from minority shareholder of the Texas Rangers to governor in 1994. Most celebrities have less direct impact on campaigns, but the accelerated mixing of entertainment and politics has given them a new cultural sound stage to strut and fret their hour upon. The question for figures like Ventura or Warren Beatty is how they use it.

The first American celebrity was George Washington, who shrewdly used his stature to stabilize and moderate the young republic. But beyond a handful of other generals and newspaper publishers, the rich and famous have not run for the highest office. Starting in the mid-20th century, celebrities did begin to play an important ancillary role, offering clues to leaders on how to fill the theater of the presidency. Franklin Roosevelt, who once tried to sell a screenplay idea about the Navy, was fascinated by Hollywood. John F. Kennedy hung with Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack and intuitively understood how to project glamour. Richard Nixon preferred Elvis Presley and Bob Hope. Celebrities in politics became taste badges. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall couldn't elect Adlai Stevenson, but they helped brand him as a classy guy.

The rise of Ronald Reagan changed the game. Reagan's success didn't kick off a big rush of celebrities into elective politics; most won't make the personal sacrifices necessary for public service. But the Gipper's fusion of stagecraft and statecraft began a broader blurring of occupational lines. In Europe, shipworker Lech Walesa and playwright Vaclav Havel have shown that nonprofessional politicians can be effective and inspirational heads of state. …

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