The 2000 election was a presidential election in which the leading candidates were two sons of former politicians (George W. Bush and A1 Gore), a former basketball player (Bill Bradley), and a former prisoner of war (John McCain). Hillary Rodham Clinton made history by becoming the only first lady to run for and win a U.S. Senate seat. Four Kennedys (Ted and Patrick Kennedy, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, and Mark Shriver) now serve in elective office, and a former professional wrestler, Jesse Ventura, is governor of Minnesota. Celebrityhood pervades the political process from campaigns and elections to governing, lobbying, and legislating.
Celebrity Politics looks at the history and contemporary role of celebrities in American politics, and the long-term implications of this trend. It examines the intersection of prominent families such as the Kennedys, Bushes, and Clintons with entertainment figures like Charlton Heston (now head of the National Rifle Association), Warren Beatty, the Rock, and Barbra Streisand. In this book, we analyze the celebrities, from John Glenn and Jim Bunning to Jesse Jackson, Jr., and Steve Largent, who have served in Congress in recent years. Our discussion of governing looks at the Reagan, Bush (both father and son), and Clinton presidencies to see how politicians use celebrities to raise money and issue awareness on a wide variety of causes. We show how television and movies intersect with the political process, as demonstrated by the popularity of the NBC show, "West Wing." Since this book examines celebrity-politics in historical context as well as in the contemporary situation, it can be used as a valuable supplementary reading in Introduction to American Politics courses as well as classes on mass media, campaigns and elections, Congress, the presidency, parties, interest groups, and popular culture.
Despite the importance of the subject, few books address celebrity politics. David Canon has a fine book, Actors, Athletes, and Astronauts, which looks at the periodic entry of prominent individuals into the U.S. Congress, but it was published more than ten years ago and focuses mainly on House elections. Darrell West is the author of Patrick Kennedy: The Rise to Power, which looks at how the next generation of Kennedys is moving to center stage. John Orman talked about the problems of celebrity politics in his book Presidential Accountability. A decade ago, journalist Ron Brownstein wrote The Power and the Glitter, which looked at the "Hollywood-Washington Connection," while Len Sherman penned The Good, the Bad and the Famous, which spotlighted the growing tendency of celebrities to get involved in the political process. The relative paucity of up-to-date materials on the Hollywoodization of politics convinced us that there was a need for a book dealing with this subject.
In the 1990s, the now-defunct magazine George, started by the late John F. Kennedy, Jr., demonstrated how all politics had become entertainment and how pop culture had become political. In this era of politics as entertainment and entertainment as politics, what has become of the political process, and what has become of popular culture? In a time when the deaths of Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy, Jr., are covered around the globe, the distinction between public life and pop culture has virtually disappeared. Celebrities run for political office (or lobby those who do), and operatives such as George Stephanopoulos, Geraldine Ferraro, Oliver North, and Jesse Ventura become celebrated figures. With popular culture merging with the political system, the press has moved toward a style of reporting that emphasizes Hollywoodstyle gossip and scandal, to the detriment of traditional politicians and political parties.
Critics warn of the deleterious effects that pop culture has on society and politics. Political accountability is undermined. Myths are manufactured in order to boost ratings. Images and stories are made into the commodities of pop culture. Leaders no longer are people in major positions, but rather are famous celebrities who sign autographs. As pointed out by social commentator Leo Braudy, fame has become democratized and no longer is restricted to queens, kings, and popes. Since the turn of the twenty-first century, the signs have been clear that the American political system has changed into a celebrity regime where politicians are subjected to Hollywood-style tabloid coverage and celebrities are treated as political actors. It is all part of the entertaining of America. No longer does the argument of whether pop culture influences political change or vice versa matter. Politics is pop culture.
The blurring of sports figures, comedy stars, newscasters, models, movie stars, television performers, rock idols, and politicians has become so dominant that citizens find it difficult to distinguish news from entertainment. Veteran CBS news anchor Dan Rather pointed out in a recent interview that "entertainment values are very close to overwhelming the values of hard news." Elements within pop culture intentionally blur the distinctions between Washington and Hollywood. The media cover pop culture celebrities as interchangeable cogs in the entertainment industry. Activist celebrities themselves have moved into the political process, both as candidates and lobbyists. Citizens legitimize celebrity politics by providing audiences for tabloid news shows and paying attention when personal scandals erupt.
The future of the celebrity political system raises a host of questions: Does the entry of celebrities into the political process represent the best or worst of American politics? Are we doomed to be led by knaves or do celebrities represent a valuable opportunity to reinvigorate the political process by bringing in new blood with innovative ideas? Has celebrity politics trivialized substance and undermined true achievement in our society? This book will try to explain how we got to where we are today, and what it means for our collective fate.
The outline of this book is as follows: Chapter 1 defines the notion of celebrity politics and shows how it has evolved over the course of American history. Chapter 2 shows how the media facilitate the creation of celebrityhood, and Chapter 3 examines the role of money in celebrity politics. Chapter 4 discusses how the advent of television created presidential celebrities. Chapters 5 and 6, respectively, look at activist celebrities and sports politicos. Chapter 7 shows the downside of celebrityhoodcomedians who make fun of prominent individuals. Chapter 8 looks at public evaluations of the celebrity regime, and Chapter 9 shows how celebrityhood has transformed American political culture and created serious difficulties for democratic systems.
We would like to thank the following people who, through their writing, helped us formulate our ideas about celebrity politics: Murray Edeleman, Dan Nimmo, James Combs, Carl Bernstein, Michael Parenti, Keith Blume, Ron Brownstein, Norman Corwin, Simon Frith, David Canon, Michael Genovese, Marjorie Hershey, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Deyan Sudjic, Larry Sabato, Holli Semetko, Paul Slansky, John Street, Bruce Miroff, Thomas Cronin, George Edwards, and Jeff Fishel. Sally Williams and Melissa Driscoll helped us prepare the manuscript, and our families encouraged us to finish the project. Dana Chicchelly did an excellent job of copy editing our manuscript. Series editor Paul Herrnson made a number of helpful comments at various stages of this project. Finally, thanks go to spouses Annie Schmitt and Reenie Demkiw, as well as children Natalie, Katie, and Nicholas Demkiw-Orman. Darrell M. West