Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Fred Thompson and the Fame-Game in Politics

Fred Thompson - former Senator and current actor - has soared into second place in the Republican presidential polls. I thought this might be a good time to post my 2003 op-ed from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, about Arnold Schwarzenegger.

When you consider that Thompson is not only an actor, but a bona-fide public servant - unlike Schwarzenegger and Reagan before they were first elected to public office - Thompson may be hard to beat, at least for the Republican Presidential nomination...

Schwarzenegger and the Fame Game

Paul Levinson

Op-ed, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 12 October 2003

Fame is a highly transferrable commodity. The part of our
brain that feels it knows someone isn't too choosy about how we
came by this comfortable acquaintance. If we admire someone as a
movie star, that person has a far better chance in politics than
a little-known politician. Although the recall election in
California was extraordinary, Arnold Schwarzenegger's victory
was predictable. As soon as he announced, most people figured
he would win. Only a robot devoid of popular culture would not
find at least a little temptation to vote for the Terminator.

Television has intensified this process, serving as a
cauldron for the fusion of fames. Martin Sheen plays President
Bartlett on The West Wing, then tapes a political commercial
against the Iraqi War. Who is talking to us in that commercial
-- an actor or a President? Years ago, Robert Young, who played
Marcus Welby, MD on television, appeared in a series of
commercials for Sanka decaffeinated coffee. Who was telling us
this coffee was good for us, an actor or a doctor?

There presumably are some limitations on this
transferability of celebrity. One hopes the Menendez brothers,
if they were able to get out of prison and run for office, would
not be elected. On the other hand, we get briskly selling books
from people behind bars all the time.

Even before television, the cross-pollination of politics
and other kinds of fame was a staple of American elections.
After all, generals from George Washington to Dwight David
Eisenhower became President on the strength of the gratitude
Americans felt for the military, not necessarily political,
prowess of these men. Of course, a general's work and experience
usually has more relevance than an actor's to the actual world.
But the experience of a governor or senator still seems the
better political credential, and would be, were the
transferrability of fame not so powerful.

The real question may be why we are still so surprised when
an actor is elected to public office. We may be getting to the
point that acting, military leadership, anything that puts
someone in the limelight is the surest path to political victory.

Not that there is anything necessarily nefarious about
this, or any use of fame in one area to make an impact in
another area. Eriq La Salle, who played Dr. Benton on ER, did a
very effective public service commercial against drugs. If the
kids who saw it were influenced by La Salle/Benton's medical
imprimatur, what's wrong with that?

Furthermore, although actors are unlikely to make good
doctors -- unless they happen to have medical degrees -- the
same is not necessarily true for actors elected to public
office. Some historians give Ronald Reagan pretty high marks for
his presidency. And generals Washington and Eisenhower have
fared pretty well in presidential history, too. The fact that
Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor for perhaps not the
best reasons does not mean that he cannot do a commendable job.

In the current age of specialization, we often forget that
multi-tasking human beings can come equipped with more than one
talent. Thomas Jefferson invented a device that automatically
copied a document as it was being written -- no shabby invention
in an age before carbon copies and xeroxes. C. G. Dawes, Vice
President in Coolidge's second administration (1924-1928), wrote
the music to "It's All in the Game" in 1912 -- which some of us
with recollections that go back to the 1950s may remember as a
beautiful recording by the mellow-voiced Tommy Edwards. Dawes,
for good measure, had also been a banker in Chicago.

Yet, there is still something at least faintly disquieting
in someone being elected to high public office on the basis of
credentials in areas other than political accomplishment and
wisdom. The concern is as old as democracy. Socrates, in his
student Xenophon's Memorabilia, points out that on a ship,
everyone follows the captain's orders (including the owner of
the ship), because the captain presumably is an expert in
navigational matters. But in a democracy such as Athens,
everyone has a say in policy, and leaders arise not necessarily
on the basis of their political wisdom or expert knowledge, but
on the basis of their popularity with the crowd. Sound familiar?

Of course, Socrates was not trying to improve or safeguard
democracy, but do away with it. In his and his student Plato's
views, the ideal leader was not someone who was elected for any
reason, but someone whose wisdom was such that he (not likely
she, in those days) would rise to the top. In Plato's
Republic, this "philosopher-king" would have absolute

In practice, in the twentieth century, such self-appointed
philosopher kings have come closer to Hitler, Stalin, and Saddam
Hussein than any democratically elected leader. (Hitler actually
was democratically elected, at first, but then seized
totalitarian power.) Even in Roman times, the generally
effective emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius disastrously
chose his son, Commodus, as successor (contrary to the Roman
proscription at the time on anointing one's child as the next
emperor). The philosopher-king failed in his most important

The process of free elections in a democracy, for all of
its imperfections, succeeds much better in choosing new leaders.
This is because the process is self-correcting. If the people do
not choose wisely -- if they elect someone for the wrong
reasons, such as a feeling of confidence born of seeing the
candidate in appealing roles on the screen -- they can always
vote the official out of office the next time. Or, as the
California recall has shown, even before the next election.

Winston Churchill probably said it best when he observed
that "democracy is the worst form of Government except all those
others that have been tried from time to time." So, yes, one of
the characteristics of this least worst form of government is
that people vote with their emotions. Good looks and engaging
voices were always at least as important as what candidates for
office said and did, and in the age of media a powerful persona
in fiction on the screen may be more important still. But
emotions make us human, and sometimes they can be better guides
than stringent logic. And if not? Well, the nice thing about
democracy is that there is always another election. It's not
the end of the world. It's all in the game.

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