Politics and Celebrity: Not-So-Strange Bedfellows

troup image for Sept 19 articleby TROUP

“There used to be a pretty sharp distinction between Hollywood and Washington, but that line has almost completely disappeared. You have celebrities who raise money and endorse candidates. You have politicians who appear on entertainment shows. And so there’s a lot of interchange between Hollywood and national politics.” – Darrell West, Director of Governance Studies at The Brookings Institution in Washington, DC

I’m busy preparing for a TROUP business trip from my current home in Los Angeles to Washington, DC, where I lived and worked for over 15 years.  My professional exposure in DC and LA has given me a unique perspective on the symbiotic relationship between politics and celebrity. Whether it’s the “politicization” of celebrity culture, or the “celebritization” of politics, it’s clear that the connection between these two once disparate worlds is growing closer and closer.  It’s an equally fascinating and fantastical phenomenon that must be appreciated if we’re to truly understand how influence (arguably our most valuable commodity) is accumulated and transferred in the U.S.

According to political columnist Rick Moran, “we can trace the marriage of politics and celebrity to the rise of Hollywood as a national medium in the 1920s. But it was the presidency of John F. Kennedy that witnessed the first real effort to bind the two together and make politicians themselves indistinguishable from movie stars.”

Since Kennedy’s administration, politics and entertainment have become almost indistinguishable from one another.  There was a minor setback in the 1970s when Jane Fonda’s outspoken resistance to the Vietnam War stifled her career opportunities and alienated much of her audience.  Her experience caused other celebrities and entertainers to quiet their political beliefs for a brief time.

Once Fonda’s experience was in the rearview mirror, the mutual fascination between political figures and celebrities started to grow again.  Here are some of my favorite examples that illustrate just how seamlessly leaders living and working in one of these worlds can move into the other –

o   President Ronald Regan evolved from one of Hollywood’s most bankable actors to the world’s most powerful and influential elected official.

o   Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin exited politics after a loss in the 2008 general election only to “reinvent” herself as a reality television personality.

o   First Lady Michelle Obama has become a full-fledged contemporary fashion icon while in the White House.  She has the power to single-handedly elevate a designer’s career simply by choosing to wear one of their garments during a brief public or media appearance.

o   From the West Wing to Scandal, and In the Line of Fire to All the President’s Men, politics is one of the most common settings for scripted entertainment productions.

o   Increasingly, everyday citizens are turning celebrity entertainers like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to get their “political” (satire) news.

o   Political events, like national nominating conventions and press correspondents’ dinners, have become more and more like entertainment awards shows.  In fact, Beyonce’s rendition of the national anthem made as many headlines as President Obama’s address at last January’s inauguration.

o   In the 2012 Presidential campaign, celebrity endorsements were handed out in record numbers, with droves of entertainments lending their names and star power to candidates in the same way they promote products. President Obama enlisted Eva Longoria to motivate Hispanic voters, Lady Gaga to bring out the gays, George Clooney to reassure progressives who were wary after slower-than-expected progress during his first term, and Oprah Winfrey to appeal to everyone else.  Mitt Romney pulled support from a mixed bag of celebrities, including Clint Eastwood, Donald Trump, Jeff Foxworthy, Scott Baio, Trace Adkins and KISS frontman Gene Simmons.

o   On Aug 6 of this year, Fox News released an article entitled Star Politics: Who Leans Left and Who Leans RightThat title pretty much says it all!

TROUP there it is!

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