Here’s My Autograph… Now How ‘Bout Your Vote? On Confusing Celebrity for Credibility

It’s kind of a shame that the reality-themed American Candidate didn’t take off back in 2004, isn’t it? In a country fueled by celebrity culture, what better way to galvanize the electorate than via a television show that actually manufactures celebrities? Originally proposed in 2002 as a 10-year project to pluck a starry-eyed populist from the masses and groom them for the 2012 presidential election, the blueprint for American Candidate bounced around a few networks before resting at Showtime in a much-watered-down rendering. The winner, an evangelical Christian named Park Gillespie, received $200,000 for his efforts, along with the opportunity to deliver an impassioned morality-laced speech (which drew analogies between current national security debates and Great Britain’s decision to replace the “appeaser Chamberlain” with the “warrior Churchill” during World War II) to Showtime’s overwhelmingly liberal audience — ironically enough, via a station that Gillespie once called “arguably the most godless network on television.”

Admittedly, American Candidate had many strikes against it. For one thing, it’s not exactly easy to energize the public when your weapon of choice is a program only available to about 10 percent of American households. The critical blow, however, was the fact that viewers were well aware that nothing was going to emerge from all the hubbub save a 60-second lecture. The original concept, where the show’s champion would have actually been placed on the ballot in all 50 states, was much more intriguing, but come on . . . a real, believable presidential candidate by 2012? Say what you will about the seemingly ever-decreasing attention span of the public, but asking even your most gung-ho political enthusiast to follow the exploits of Joe Candidate through three electoral cycles borders on the absurd.

Gillespie’s political aspirations may currently be in limbo — his bid for a South Carolina Congressional seat folded earlier this year after the GOP backed a primary rival — but certainly, political candidates born out of the entertainment industry are no longer treated with blanket derision. People have long been fed up with traditional politicians that are so far removed from their lives, their issues; they want people they know… or at least, think they know, based on what they’ve seen on television.

Mainstream public trust in social institutions has been on the decline since the Vietnam / Watergate era, but these days it’s practically flat-lining; a Zogby poll this May revealed that only three percent of the American public views Congress as being “trustworthy”, which comes as little surprise. From the Jack Abramoff lobbying deals to the Freezer O’ Cash maintained by Louisiana Rep. William Jefferson, government scandals — to say nothing of simply pure incompetence — are so ubiquitous that whenever a new one unfolds, we simply shrug our shoulders, shake our heads, and move on. Of course, this isn’t to say that governmental behavior is necessarily growing worse — only that the media has gotten much better at ferreting out improprieties than in years past. In fact, one might even make the argument that today’s elected officials are actually more scrupulous than their predecessors… or at least abstain from overly-blatant abuses of power. See “Long, Huey” and “Tweed, Boss” for comparisons.

Contrast this feeling of passive acceptance with the passion for the fictional politicians we follow on television each week. When President David Palmer was assassinated during the fifth season of FOX’s 24 back in January, some viewers commented that they had felt more anguish than if the real President, George W. Bush, had been killed. And can you blame them? Palmer is the guy that served as Webster’s very definition of “forthright & courageous” — not only standing up to the Machiavellian tactics of his wife, Sherry (clearly modeled on a Hillary Clinton archetype and possessing the trademark Eat-Through-Lead steely gaze patented by one Condoleeza Rice), but also showing prudence and restraint during tense diplomatic crises where more trigger-happy executives would have released the military hounds and called it a night. Palmer’s demise on 24 hasn’t stopped fans from organizing an internet petition calling for actor Dennis Haysbert to run for the White House in 2008 — although the petition is clear that the intention is for Haysbert to play the role of David Palmer in the Oval Office, making the writers of 24 the real commanders-in-chief in a Wizard of Oz-like scenario. (From the petition: “Heck, you wouldn’t be the first actor to hold the position and you sure wouldn’t be the first one only playing a role.” No one can believe Haysbert is the same guy who portrayed voodoo-crazed Pedro “curve ball, bats are afraid” Cerrano in Major League.)

Support from the blogging community is one thing: how about being recruited to run for office by party officials? Martin Sheen, famous for his portrayal of President Josiah Bartlet on NBC’s The West Wing, was actually contacted by Democratic bigwigs in the hope that he’d challenge Sen. Mike DeWine this fall in Sheen’s home state of Ohio. While both Bartlet and Palmer were written as being members of the Democratic Party, Palmer’s ideology never seemed to impact his character’s behavior. Between dealing with both terrorist threats and the antics of folks like Sherry, Palmer didn’t exactly have time to deliver any monologues concerning EPA mandates or the state of the nation’s public education system.

The West Wing, on the other hand, was a show which was designed to focus more on the day-to-day activities of a presidential administration, and as such allowed Bartlet to charm left-leaning idealists by having him take decisive liberal stances on issues ranging from gun control to immigration. Regardless of whether you agreed with his positions, even the biggest dittohead had to admit that the guy had charisma… although one might’ve wished that creator Aaron Sorkin would have placed a bit more emphasis on presenting convincing counter-arguments. (However, my good friend and acclaimed political analyst Alan Gitelson tells me that the series does a much better job at presenting opposing points of view in later seasons.) But even if Bartlet had mainstream appeal, Sheen was wise enough to decline the offer to run for Senate, stating “I’m just not qualified. You’re confusing celebrity for credibility.” If there were states in which Sheen might be a viable candidate, the centrist Ohio probably wasn’t one of them – particularly for an admitted pacifist who makes his alter-ego look like Vladimir Zhirinovsky by comparison.

It’s quite telling that our country’s most viable celebrity politicians – such as like Arnold Schwartzenegger, Jesse Ventura, Steve Largent, and Jim Bunning, have come primarily from one of two categories: action-film heroes and sports stars. Take-charge men. Men with resolution and conviction. No-nonsense men who’ll shoot from the hip and fit right in with your Sergio Leone film of choice. Warren Beatty’s name was floated around as a possible presidential contender back in 2000, but do you think mainstream support would flock to a guy who once starred in Shampoo? Uh-uh. (To say nothing of the excruciatingly painful raps that punctuated his 1998 film Bulworth, in which he portrays a Democratic senator who inexplicably morphs into a hip-hop version of Che Guevera.)

And while Rob Reiner doesn’t carry nearly the same kind of baggage, he would have likely been facing an uphill fight had he decided to take on Schwartzenegger this fall in California’s gubernatorial race. How many “Terminator vs. Meathead” headlines would the public be able to digest before the comparisons began to subconsciously weigh on the electorate? Candidates who are seen as “soft” – rightly or wrongly – have a tough time gaining traction, which is a big reason why filmmaker / rabble-rouser Michael Moore (whom I generally enjoy, even if I feel that some of his political positions are kinda nuts) backed retired Gen. Wesley Clark in the 2004 Democratic primary. Military commanders, while lacking the visibility of Hollywood action stars, possess that same sort of Tough Guy veneer that typically plays very well in middle America. If Schwartzenegger had spent his formative years getting berated by Archie Bunker instead of lifting weights, you likely wouldn’t see him sitting in Sacramento, either.

An aside here, before I go further: yes, Ronald Reagan did win the presidency after entering California politics directly from Hollywood, and no, he was not a John Wayne-esque star by any means. But I’d posit that the film industry wasn’t nearly as powerful in the ’40s and ’50s as it has been over the last several decades, so a movie like Bedtime for Bonzo — in which Ronnie played a college professor who played daddy to a chimp — wouldn’t have necessarily deep-sixed his electoral chances later on. Plus, Bedtime for Bonzo came relatively late in Reagan’s career, after he’d already made a name for himself in much more testosterone laden productions such as Knute Rockne, All American. (It’s akin to how Schwartzenegger was able to get away with films in the ’90s like Junior without suffering a loss of macho cred.) And finally, Reagan was staunchly anti-communist – enough so that, as president of the Screen Actors Guild he fed the FBI names of fellow thespians whom he suspected of being subversives. Had Reagan starred in pictures like Reds, as did Warren Beatty, his political career might’ve never gotten off the launching pad.

While Reagan was no action star, he did serve as a voice for conservative ideology; providing a common thread uniting guys like Schwartzenegger, Ventura, and Clint Eastwood, even if they didn’t all share the same party affiliation. It makes perfect sense: do we really think that a guy like Eastwood, who made his career by taking the law into his own hands and meting out justice to evildoers, would espouse big-government solutions once the cameras stopped rolling?

No-nonsense, law and order types are always going to be popular with prospective voters (at least until they open their mouths, as Ventura found), because it’s those elements of their personas which clash the strongest with what we find to be so frustrating in traditional politicians. Straight talk is mighty appealing, and for better or worse, the ‘Action Jackson’ segment of the population is less likely to beat around the bush than your typical DC law-school graduate. (This is what makes Sen. John McCain’s recent hobnobbing with Jerry Falwell & Co. so very disappointing. McCain, whose presidential campaign was covered in David Foster Wallace’s terrific essay “Up, Simba”, has apparently decided to kowtow to the same Religious Right which had trashed his name in the 2000 GOP primaries, in a rather shameless attempt to win the support of social conservatives for a White House run in ’08.)

The mindset involved in KO’ing Bad Guys isn’t much different from what you need to succeed in the athletic arena. Certainly, both sets of people are physically imposing, which doesn’t hurt – if you take a look, you’ll notice that you won’t find too many Couch Potato legislators, particularly in higher levels of office. And sports stars, such as former Reps. Largent and J.C. Watts, have extensive training in reciting simple, feel-good platitudes based on years of post-game press conferences.

What’s difficult to ascertain, however, is why people think that someone like University of Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne or Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka would be an ideal politician. If there’s one job that doesn’t call for compromise or consensus-building, it’s that of a head football coach. Football coaches are essentially despots. Do you think Iron Mike asked anyone’s opinion before laying down the law at Soldier Field? Ditka – who was seriously courted as a Republican Senate nominee in 2004 after primary winner Jack Ryan bowed out of the race – generated a wave of enthusiasm when his name was championed by a number of Illinois GOP officials as a legitimate candidate for the ballot. Nearly 20 years after leading the Bears to the Super Bowl, Ditka still curried an enormous amount of favor with loyal Chicagoans that cut across racial and party lines.

If Ditka had run, however, the media would have likely taken off the kid gloves and have paid a bit more attention to some of his political comments – such as his self-description of being “ultra-ultra-ultra-conservative” and his opinions on abortion and gay marriage: “What’s the matter with right and wrong? Talk about right and wrong. It’s either right or wrong. There’s no in between. And I’m not going to change, and you’re not going to change me, no matter if some judge in the state of Massachusetts or the Supreme Court says it’s right.” There is something admirable in that kind of conviction – it’s just that it runs rather contrary to the whole notion that elected officials should enforce the Constitution while representing the wishes of their constituents. As Robert the Bruce’s leprosy-stricken father said in Braveheart when discussing William Wallace: “Uncompromising men are easy to admire. But it is the ability to compromise that makes a man noble.”

Interestingly enough, the Illinois GOP that year wound up nominating former ambassador and two-time presidential candidate Alan Keyes, who essentially championed many of the same dogmatic views that Ditka did… albeit much more eloquently – after all, Keyes has a PhD from Harvard and is quite an orator. However, it didn’t take long for the public to tune him out well in advance of his debates with challenger (now Senator) Barack Obama. Among Keyes’ many inflammatory comments were the comparison of women who choose to terminate their pregnancies to terrorists, and the labeling of Obama’s pro-choice views as akin to the “slaveholder’s position” on abortion. Egads. Personally, I’d much rather remember Keyes as the man who defiantly surfed Michael Moore’s traveling mosh pit in the 2000 Iowa caucuses against a backdrop of Rage Against the Machine tunes.

Osborne isn’t nearly as authoritarian as Ditka, and did manage to translate his success as the University of Nebraska football coach into three terms as a US Congressional representative. But Osborne’s career is apparently coming to a close after suffering a narrow GOP gubernatorial primary defeat earlier this year to incumbent Nebraska governor Dave Heineman. Having spent decades as the Man In Charge, it’s not surprising that Osborne would risk his position as a single voice out of 435 for the chance to sit in the state’s #1 chair. (Among the many issues raised in Osborne’s defeat: why did he recruit ex-Oklahoma Sooners coach Barry Switzer to campaign for him? Switzer was the biggest emblem of Nebraska’s most-hated rival – it’d be like having Darth Vader stump for a member of the Rebel Alliance.) Other sports celebrities who’ve dabbled in politics include:

Lynn Swann, a man currently facing an uphill climb against incumbent Gov. Ed Rendell in Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial race. Swann was a star wideout for the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers teams of the ’70s, but has been hamstrung by a lack of both detailed issue positions and political experience. Swann didn’t even register to vote until his 30s, and has only participated in roughly half of the elections held since then.

Charles Barkley, who has recently stated that he’ll run for governor of Alabama as an independent… in 2014. (State law requires that he live there for seven years before running for office. Remember what I said about the patience of the American electorate?) Sir Charles has been a Quote Machine since the beginning of his pro basketball career, and routinely fires off caustic one-liners on everything from politics to race relations on TNT’s weekly Inside the NBA, Barkley is one of very few celebrities who can basically get away with saying anything at this point, no matter how taboo the subject. In other words, it’s exactly the kind of the thing that will get him into Jesse Ventura-esque gobs of trouble if and when he runs for office. Folks in Minnesota seemed to lose their sense of humor rather quickly.

Bill Bradley, who, as you’re probably familiar with, more than dabbled in politics, serving in the US Senate for 18 years before launching a failed run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000. I mention Bradley because of the number of ex-NBA teammates who emerged from the woodwork to promote his White House bid – with Phil Jackson reeling in the ultimate coup by convincing Michael Jordan to publicly lend his support. This is the same Michael Jordan who refused to endorse Harvey Gantt during his ’90 and 1996 Senate campaigns against incumbent Jesse Helms (who clearly played upon racial tension with a series of now-famous anti-affirimative-action ads which showed a pair of white hands crumpling up a job rejection letter) in Jordan’s home state of North Carolina because “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” As for Bradley, Jordan’s support didn’t translate into enough actual votes, and rival Al Gore swept each and every Democratic primary.

I’ll close with a discussion of the gubernatorial campaigns of two celebrities who fall outside the Venn Diagram circles of film and sports, but share with Barkley the ability to speak their mind, media fallout be damned: Howard Stern and Kinky Friedman.

Stern’s star has faded somewhat in recent years, but he really was the King of All Media back in 1994, with an incredibly-popular syndicated radio show, best-selling books, and a film about his life in the works. Stern packed New York’s Libertarian Party convention that year with busloads of his supporters, enacting a political coup and seizing the Libertarian Party’s gubernatorial nomination based on a platform of just two initiatives: re-instituting the state’s death penalty (promoted with a campaign slogan of “A Volt for Every Vote”), and moving highway construction so that it didn’t interfere with rush-hour traffic.

People laugh about his campaign now, but back in ’94, Stern’s candidacy had real traction. Anti-incumbency fervor was sweeping the land (the GOP took over both wings of Congress that fall, including a gain of 50+ seats in the House), with then-incumbent Gov. Mario Cuomo looking old and tired after a dozen years in office. Stern was running third in polls behind Cuomo and Republican challenger George Pataki, but with a sizeable showing that mirrored Ventura’s strength four years later – a largely apolitical force motivated primarily by their candidate’s star power and charisma as opposed to any particular ideology.

Unfortunately, nobody ever got to find out how much of Stern’s strength would materialize on Election Day; Stern withdrew from the race rather than publicize his finances, as required by campaign laws. However, he did endorse Pataki for governor, and when the challenger eked out a narrow victory, Stern was rewarded with a front-row seat at the inauguration ceremony — in stark contrast to GOP mayor Rudy Guiliani, who crossed party lines late in the race to endorse Cuomo’s re-election bid. Howard later went on to cement his self-proclaimed “Kingmaker” label when he supported Christie Whitman in her successful bid for governor of New Jersey, causing a minor furor when Whitman repaid the favor by renaming a New Jersey rest stop in his honor.

Our last stop is troubadour Kinky Friedman, who’s currently waging a populist campaign for the governorship of Texas, amidst a wild race where incumbent Rick Perry is besieged by three challengers – including a second credible independent candidate in state comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn. Freidman’s resume includes 10 country-folk albums chock full of wry social commentary, as well as a series of detective novels (starring a fictionalized version of himself) and a four-year stint as an op-ed columnist for the Texas Monthly magazine.

Campaign analysts have put forth the notion in recent years that people want elected officials with whom they can “sit down and share a beer.” (Except perhaps in Utah.) It’s a metaphor for seeming approachable and not so incredibly detached from the lives of ordinary citizens, and it’s one of the elements that some claim contributed to the political successes of both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. From all accounts, Kinky is that guy at the bar whom everyone likes, regardless of ideological differences – he’s even been invited by the two aforementioned presidents to the White House, and calls both of them his friends. When asked “How do you plan to combat the perception that yours is not a serious candidacy?,” Friedman responded, “Are you kidding? Just because the other three candidates have had humor bypasses does not mean I have to be a self important pompous ass.”

Friedman’s campaign is not tongue-in cheek like Stern’s was, and his platform is serious about addressing state issues; his website includes details (at least as much as anyone else’s) on a host of positions involving everything from energy policy to the death penalty and illegal immigration, and his bandwagon has attracted a slew of media attention in recent weeks from national figures such as Tucker Carlson and Don Imus. Will it be enough to send him to Austin? It’s doubtful, particularly due to the fact that the anti-incumbent vote will be split three ways. But with the first gubernatorial debate set for October 5th, there’s still plenty of time to mount a late charge, as the forum will likely be an optimal showcase for Friedman’s charisma and dry wit. Ventura’s 1998 campaign in Minnesota didn’t take off until he pummeled his opponents in his own debates, and like Ventura, Friedman will be aiming at voters who have been disengaged from the political process and therefore might be under-represented in polling data.

I don’t live in Texas and I don’t listen to country music, but I’ll be pulling for Kinky this fall. No one will ask him to meet with foreign dignitaries or decide on whether to send troops into battle. No one will ask him to deal with issues of national security or nominate justices to the Supreme Court. All that’s required is enthusiasm and a willingness to work with people he knows, people he’s grown up with, in solving local problems that could surely benefit from more candor and less partisanship. And if he happens to make us laugh along the way, what’s wrong with that?

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Upon graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering, Kevin Fullam’s logical career progression has led him to stints as a political speechwriter, pro sports analyst, and indie-rock DJ. He currently hosts the bi-weekly radio show Under Surveillance on Chicago’s WLUW that covers popular culture and politics. For more info, archived shows, and general rabble-rousing, visit In the interest of full disclosure, he would like to add that his own ideological leanings can best be described as libertarian in nature. And since his preferred candidates never win, he often winds up tacitly supporting those people who would ultimately provide him with the most entertainment for his political dollar.