'Celebrity' dig reflects US culture, history

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When John McCain decided to cast Barack Obama as feckless upstart, an empty suit, he reached for the dirtiest word he could use: "celebrity."

"He's the biggest celebrity in the world," a female narrator warns in breathless tones for a McCain ad, "but is he ready to lead?" Chants of "O-bama! O-bama!" form a mischievous backtrack to fleeting images of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton — one a troubled singer and the other a socialite who is famous for, well, being famous.

What McCain and his image-makers don't bother to tell us is that all serious presidential candidates are celebrities....

"People want to find candidates appealing and find some qualities where they're like me or they're better than me," says Victoria Ott, a historian at Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama who studies the pre-Civil War era.

She points to Andrew Jackson, the self-styled populist who called himself "Old Hickory" and touted his war record. His allies cast rival John Quincy Adams as an elitist with the slogan, "Vote for Andrew Jackson, who can fight. Not for John Quincy Adams, who can write."

Nearly 180 years later, the celebrity machine is churning out the same pablum, albeit electronically and instantaneously. Now it's Vietnam POW John McCain who can fight and best-selling author Barack Obama who can write.

Abraham Lincoln edited his speeches before sending them off to newspapers, and his image-makers marched into a convention hall with two fence rails placarded, "Abraham Lincoln, The Rail Candidate for President in 1860."

A celebrity was born, later to be deified upon his assassination and now celebrated daily at the Disney-influenced Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield, Illinois.

In the 19th century, three developments fueled the celebrification of politics: a new form of communications (the telegraph), the proliferation of a largely partisan and affordable medium (newspapers) and the democratization of the electoral process that gave more people the vote. The same dynamics are driving the culture of celebrity today, though with different platforms: the Internet, blogs and Obama's drive to swell voter registration rolls with young voters.

Teddy Roosevelt, the rugged outdoorsman. John F. Kennedy, the dashing war hero. Ronald Reagan, the morning-in-America optimist. No less than Kennedy's "Rat Pack," these presidents were celebrities.

"What we're looking for in any celebrity is the marvel of discovery," says Jim Broussard, a historian at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania. "A movie star is a celebrity because we see them in movies and we think they're great. I want to be him or like him. Obama's celebrity comes from the fact that a lot of people are hungry for something and all of a sudden they find it and say, 'This is terrific.'"...

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Raul A Garcia - 9/25/2008

The ever present lens and now the cyber "eye" and ear and mouthpiece dishevels the best candidate. There is a great levelling on this computerspeak. Cynicism, sometimes all too warranted, is chic. More dangerously, conspiracy theories abound amidst evidence to the contrary. On the other hand, there is a new forum and voice to the wee people. Blog this blog that, egos are reinforced, maybe even self-esteem is helped by these exercises. History still needs time for reflection despite the inundation of information and minutae. A teacher told me once not to be "so quick to judge"- better that one does take a side rather than retreat to a position of apathy.

Randll Reese Besch - 9/17/2008

The method and ethos are doggedly the same. As long as the human psychology remains the same so will these be.