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Jul 16, 2004 5:07 am

Banana Republic Politics

I mean no insult to Latin America, but the phrase Banana Republic came to mind when I read that the Illinois Republican Party was considering running Mike Ditka for the United States Senate. He withdrew his name from consideration after a couple of days, saying,"I don't know how I'd do on the Senate floor if I got into a confrontation with someone I didn't appreciate." But what were the Republicans thinking? Ditka's sole qualification was that he is famous as the head coach of the Chicago Bears.

When a country begins to draw its political leadership from the ranks of celebrities, there is reason for concern. When this happens in other countries--the Philippines comes to mind--we Americans sit back in wonder at the primitiveness of their political systems. But when it happens here the pundits cheer and say how inspired the choice is. Why surely he/she has a good shot at winning. And winning is everything, isn't it, as another football coach once said.

The country will survive, of course. And occasionally one or two of these celebrity politicians will actually turn out to be gifted at politics. But we should be worried by the trend.

Why is there a trend? Why after Reagan did we get Sony, and the Love Boat guy, and Jesse and Arnold and the others? It is because our politics is dominated by the media. When party bosses were in charge of politics they usually picked people on the basis of their resume, their loyalty to party, and their electability. In a mediacentric age only one of these three tests is regarded as essential: electability.

So what? Let me reel off the concerns: 1. celebrities tend to be rich and powerful, meaning our leadership class will increasingly be drawn from the rich and the powerful (yes, yes, our leaders already are; but things will get worse). 2. if celebrity is all that counts our politics will increasingly be about what Ike contemptuously called"personalities." 3. Serious people will not want to run for office because the coin of politics will have become diminished. 4. Advisors will increasingly assume more power because celebrity politicians will be reliant on them for help in navigating the tricky waterways of American politics. 5. The more celebrities win, the more parties will be inclined to pick celebrities, until we get a leadership class that looks more like an episode of Hollywood Squares than America. 6. ... Uh, do I need to go on?

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Jonathan Dresner - 7/24/2004

Not in this country, perhaps, but Japan's LDP has, apparently, been recruiting female 'tarento' ('Talent', aka minor stars) to run in some districts, and they make up a noticeable component of the Diet now as a consequence.

Oscar Chamberlain - 7/24/2004

Mark, your point about the way the social definition of fame alters national politics is an excellent one. However, I think there is one aspect of the celebrity turned politician that can serve the public well (or at least not badly), and that is their independence.

They do not need their polical affiliation to validate their lives publicly. That's done. In fact, when a political party turns to a celebrity, the party needs the man more than the man needs the party. That allows him greater flexibility to forge compromises.

In short, I think that the public's willingness to embrace a celebrity has to be judged on a case-by-case basis. It could be what they are hoping for is something more subtle than a middle linebacker or muscle-bound actor. They may be hoping for a choice other than extremism or gridlock.

PS: I used "man" deliberately. I know of no women who have been chosen because of an independently earned celebrity. (Wives of politicians don't count here).

Mark Daniels - 7/19/2004

I take your point and agree. Washington and Ike, two heroes of mine, definitely merited election as president based on the "fame" they received. The only point I was trying to make, perhaps ineffectively, is that the culture has so changed that our understanding of what sort of fame constitutes a "reputation...[accruing] to a person who engaged in a function that resulted in an improved society" has changed also.

Perhaps as a result of Americans' apparent desire to be little more than sated lab rats--fed, housed, entertained, we now seem to regard people like football players, pro wrestlers, and movie stars as people who have improved our lives.

More than that, we seem to so buy into the primacy of the individual that we regard the person who has scaled the heights of celebrity as an almost mythic figure.

I agree that the achievements of a Jesse Ventura or Sonny Bono or Mike Ditka can't compare with those of George Washington or Dwight Eisenhower. But it appears to me that an often shallow, narcissitic culture doesn't agree with either of us. There appears to be a different definition of fame, with the same penchant for entrusting the famous with political power.

HNN Editor - 7/18/2004

Thanks for your intelligent comment.

But I disagree emphatically with your equating modern-day concepts of celebrity with what the Founding Fathers referred to as fame. It was well established in a fine essay by Douglass Adair years ago that by "fame" the Founding Fathers meant the reputation that would accrue to a person who engaged in a function that resulted in an improved society. The highest fame, it was said, went to those engaged in nation-building.

Washington therefore merited the presidency as a nation builder. So did Ike. Jesse Ventura, Sony and Dicta do not fall into this category.

Mark Daniels - 7/17/2004

In 2000, Mel Carnahan was in a hotly-contested race for the Missouri Senate being sought again by the incumbent John Ashcroft. Days before the election, Carnahan died in a plane crash.

What did leaders of Missouri's Democratic Party do? Did they look for the Democrat most well-qualified to serve in the Senate? No, they tapped a sympathetic character with good name recognition, Carnahan's widow, Jean.

In recent days, the Illinois Republican Party, faced with the popularly-forced departure of its US Senate nominee, has been casting about for a quick fix, a compelling replacement nominee. Did they look for the Republican most qualified to serve in the Senate? No, since there was certainly no widow to replace the departed candidate, they considered who had great name recognition in the state and was popular, a political tabula rasa. Mike Ditka's name came up.

This sort of thing isn't new, really. America has always had a certain amount of celebrity politics. Nelson Rockefeller and Averill Harriman, both governors of New York and each, at one time or another, contenders for their parties' presidential nominations, were celebrities by virtue of family fortunes. Dwight Eisenhower never served in political office before his election as president in 1952; his celebrity was achieved, admirably, on the battlefields of western Europe during World War Two. Franklin Roosevelt, perceived to be a Hudson River dandy, certainly gained his initial foothold in the political world not because of his acumen for politics, but due to his famous name. (His appointment by Woodrow Wilson to cousin Teddy's old job as assistant secretary of the Navy, was widely regarded as a poke in the Republicans' eyes. Ron Reagan is going to be used similarly by the upcoming Democratic National Convention, it would seem.)

The framers of the Constitution in fact, anticipated that most public figures would be persons who had achieved prominence or "celebrity" (they would have said "fame," with their particular eighteenth century meaning of that term) before being elected to office. Members of the House were to be at least twenty-five, those of the Senate, thirty, and presidents to be at least thirty-five on the notion that members ought to have notably established themselves before holding public office. (One must keep in mind the shorter life expectancies of those days and the fact that a person could enter a profession at a much younger age than one can do it today. Hence, a thirty-five year old had reached a far more venerable age back in 1787 than she or he has attained by that same point in their life today.) The framers appear to have envisioned the government to be composed of "successful" persons, who had attained "celebrity."

Today, we define success differently, though. People achieve celebrity in different ways. Athletics and entertainment are now among our most highly valued professions. It's therefore natural---if a bit deplorable---that people from these fields, with or without abilities, would attract the attention of the pols and the public. Until our society undergoes another shift in defining who our "successful" people are, I think that we can expect more athletes and entertainers to be considered for public office and to serve.

[One other point: Ronald Reagan was actually preceded in political life by another film actor. Hollywood song and dance man George Murphy was elected to the US Senate from California in 1964. It was to Murphy that Reagan quipped during his midnight inauguration as governor in 1967, "Well, George, here we are on the late show again."]