Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Celebreties as Politicians–A Fad Run Amok

We have a long tradition in the U.S. of entertainers becoming politicians.  Most (in)famously, of course, this was illustrated by Ronald Reagan’s transformation from an actor in B-grade movies to Governor of California and, eventually, President of the United States.  (Those were also B-Grade roles, in my opinion.) Reagan wasn’t the first.  Helen Douglas, a Broadway singer and actress, was elected to the House of Representatives in 1944.  George Murphy, a song and dance man (no comment about all politicians fitting that category–it’s too easy), served in the Senate from 1964 to 1970.  And Shirley Temple, the child star of the Great Depression, grew up to become Shirley Temple Black, Ambassador to the United Natons. (Unlike many a celebrity-turned-politician, she actually studied politics and international affairs and earned real qualifications for the job!) But the list is much longer:  Clint Eastwood, semi-fair actor and much better director, took a turn as a small town mayor in California.  So did the singer, Sonny Bono, who went on to become a Republican U.S. Representative before dying in a skiing accident.  The TV wrestler James Janos (who went by the pseudonymn Jesse “The Body” Ventura) became Governor of Minnesota.  Former minister turned TV mogul, Pat Robertson, ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1996, losing badly to Sen. Bob Dole (who, in turn, was trounced by Bill Clinton’s reelection campaign). TV personality (or whatever) Jerry Springer became the mayor of Cincinnatti, Ohio.   And, of course, body-builder/actor Arnold Schwarzenegger is now serving his second term as Governor of California.

But in the upcoming election cycle (to the extent our nation even has a cycle, now, instead of permanent campaigning!), the trend seems to be in danger of becoming a flood!  Fred Thompson, the actor, served one term in the U.S. Senate (R-TN) before returning to acting.  Now, he is campaigning for the Republican nomination for U.S. president.

The comedian and liberal radio personality, Al Franken, is campaigning as a Democrat for the U.S. Senate, challenging incumbent Norm Coleman (R-MN), although Franken faces a crowded field of Democrats vying for the chance to take on Coleman.

Progressives in Flint, Michigan are trying to draft filmmaker and author Michael Moore to run for Congress.

Before his return to PBS, there was a “Draft Bill Moyers for President” campaign. (The veteran journalist and author did serve as Communications Director in the Johnson White House, which might be some qualification!)

It is rumored that the Country & Western singer/songwriter, Tim McGraw, a Democrat, is considering running either for Governor of Tennessee or for the U.S. Senate from Tennessee. (Would he finally have to take off his hat? And what about that very steamy video that he and his wife, Faith Hill, made a few years back for one of their duets?)  What’s next? Willie Nelson running for Governor of Texas? (I can see it now–Gov. Nelson introduces legislation that would make Texas the second state, after California, to legalize marijuana for medical purposes.  The problem is that Gov. Nelson self-medicates!)

And now there are rumors that Academy Award winning actor Morgan Freeman, a favorite of mine, is considering running on a Democratic ticket for the Senate in his home state of Mississippi. (If elected, he would become the first African American senator in the Old South since the days of Reconstruction.)

 Now, I like some of these people.  And Franken, Moore, and Morgan would surely be better than the dregs they are opposing.  But I find this trend disturbing, no matter which Party or office.  What does acting, singing, dancing, hosting a TV show, etc. do to prepare someone for political office? It might help them campaign, but does it help them govern?  Don’t we already have enough blurring of politics and entertainment without this kind of thing?  Doesn’t this reinforce the preference for style over substance in politics–and doesn’t that erode real work for the common good, the very purpose of civic life?

Like most people, I like or dislike entertainers based on their talent or lack thereof, plus whether I like their style or genre.  I like some of Sean Penn’s movies and not others–and this would be true whether or not I agreed with his politics.  I like most of Bruce Willis movies–despite his conservative Republicanism.  My views on things are not influenced by what Barbra Streisand (on the left) says about them, anymore than what James Wood (on the right) says.  Fame does not grant someone political expertise.

I am not saying that entertainers should keep quiet about their political views–I believe in free speech for everyone.  Nor would I forbid them to run for office (on what grounds?).  But I wonder that we in the U.S. are so quick to elect entertainers.  Their collective track records once in office are not that good.

Strange times.  Will it end with us having candidates audition for office??


October 4, 2007 - Posted by | U.S. politics


  1. 1. My mom worked with Shirley Temple Black in the Pentagon and at the U.N. back in the 70s.

    2. Every movie Sean Penn has directed so far has been a masterpiece (Indian Runner, Crossing Guard, The Pledge). Although I haven’t seen his latest one yet, Into the Wild. It looks like a bit of a departure.

    3. Many of these actors spend a lot of time volunteering in social work, using their clout to mediate and negotiate domestically and internationally for social progress. I’d say that makes them qualified in a way most politicians aren’t.

    4. We’ve had dozens of dud/evil presidents and hundreds of horrible senators and governors. Most of them weren’t actors, at least not film or theater actors.

    I think each one should be evaluated based on their own merit. Obviously a classical political science education doesn’t guarantee a good politician. We’ve got thousands of examples to prove that point.

    Comment by Thom Stark | October 4, 2007

  2. Obviously a classical political science education doesn’t guarantee a good politician.

    Well, THAT’s certainly true, Thom. While I’m not sure that “Limo Liberalism” is the best preparation for a political career, ether, it is certainly true that our democracy has worked well when we have elected officials from a variety of backgrounds.

    However, while I agree that each candidate should be judged on her or his merits alon, I think the trend of electing people who have little or no experience in governing has also not served us well. Maybe we should look for cross-cultural experience; experience in working for a living; an intellectual curiosity about the world; a humility and willingness to learn from others; a hard work ethic, etc.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 4, 2007

  3. You forgot Gopher from Love Boat — Fred Grandy —

    Everyone has a right to run — even we preachers — and in an age when Billionaraires use their own funds to run why not celebrities who run on name recognition. But I’m not sold on celebrity candidates either.

    Arnold has been alternately horrible and not too bad. These days he’s positioned himself as an alternative voice in the GOP, which kind of makes him a pariah among Republicans. These days the California GOP is pretty much a clone of Sean Hannitty, one of the results of how we’ve gerrymandered our districts. There aren’t many Republicans in the legislature but those in there tend to be so conservative that they make George Bush seem moderate.

    Comment by Bob Cornwall | October 4, 2007

  4. I did forget Fred Gandy! Probably others, too. By contrast, in Canada, the last Liberal Party general election (to decide who heads the Party and becomes PM if they return to power) had a line up of candidates that included TWO Ph.D.s!! There’s only ever been one American president with a Ph.D. (Woodrow Wilson, former president of Princeton University)–not that Wilson was a great president.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 4, 2007

  5. Just to add to the list, there are sports stars (Jack Kemp and Bill Bradley), astronauts (John Glenn), military heroes (Eisenhower, Grant, Jackson, T. Roosevelt, Z. Taylor, etc.)

    Comment by Mysical Seeker | October 4, 2007

  6. When I was growing up in Tennessee (1960’s) I remember when Tex Ritter (of cowboy film fame and the Grand Ole Opry) ran for the Republican Senate nomination against the senior Albert Gore. Earlier (in the 1940’s) Roy Acuff had run for governor when the seated governor had made disparaging remarks about country music.

    Comment by T Leuze | October 5, 2007

  7. Thanks for stopping by, Thom Leuze and adding examples. Did it never end? 🙂

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 5, 2007

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