Monday, September 15, 2008

Week of 09/15/2008

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Celebrity and the Presidency
– by David Matthews 2

Tom was a well-known author.

Ted was a famous explorer and outdoorsman who had a stuffed animal named after him.

Rich appeared on a prime-time television variety show.

Ron made movies and worked with animals.

Will played a musical instrument on TV.

Most of them never met each other, and only one of them is still alive today, but they all had two things in common.

They all were celebrities.

And they were all elected President of the United States of America.

You can probably guess who most of them are. “Tom” is short for Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence (amongst other great works) before he became the second U.S. President. “Ted” is short for Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt... who became the inspiration for the “Teddy Bear”. “Rich” is short for Richard, as in Richard Nixon, who made the first-ever cameo on NBC’s TV series “Laugh-In”. “Ron” is Ronald Reagan, a Hollywood film actor who was best-known for working with a chimp in the movie “Bedtime for Bonzo”. And of course “Will” is short for William Jefferson Clinton, and his stint opening up for the now-defunct “Arsinio Hall Show” by playing the saxophone with the band helped to boost his presidential campaign.

They were, in their own rights and in their own unique ways, celebrities. With the obvious exception of Nixon, they had all been famous before their ascendency to the highest elected office in the nation. In fact it can be said that their name recognition and their status AS a “celebrity” helped in their campaigns.

So why is it that people are treating “celebrity” as though it’s now a dirty word?

Senator John McCain is quick to call fellow Senator Barack Obama a “celebrity”, likening him to infamous celebrities like Paris Hilton and Brittney Spears. Obama’s defenders have since pointed out that for the longest time McCain himself was treated by the media as a political celebrity simply because he never really worked within “the establishment”. Mind you this is the same “establishment” that has now pledged to do anything and everything to help McCain win in the November elections, even using the same tactics that effectively sabotaged his 2000 campaign.

But though madness… and perhaps a touch of senility… there is method to this attack.

The oldest complaint that has been made of Obama and his relatively young career is that he is an “elitist”. That he is too much of an upper-crust, smug, intellectual that looks down on the rest of society with pity and goads it along with mock praise and half-hearted ideas that never could work but make people feel good.

It’s hypocritical, of course, because the people who throw about the phrase are pretty much guilty of projecting their own flaws onto others. But then again, we’re dealing with presidential politics, and hypocrisy has been a required element for quite some time now.

Accusing a candidate of being “elitist” because of how they carry themselves or how they talk tries to take away the claim of the accused of being a champion of “the common man”, because as we all know, the “common man” is not an intellectual person. The “common man” doesn’t live with upper-crust America. The “common man” is pretty much a moron and a slob. The “common man” aspires for a life of middle-class mediocrity in a subdivision while going to tractor-pulls and shopping at Costco, not hanging out with Hollywood superstars and attending posh events with Nobel laureates.

Bill and Hillary Clinton certainly tried to cultivate the idea that they were champions of the “common man”, especially with Bill’s southern drawl and his history of coming up from poverty. But behind the drawl and the “aw shucks” image was a wife that was anything BUT “common”. And it was reflected in where the Clintons went to on their summer vacations in the 1990’s. Sure Bill may TALK like a “common man”, but the “common man” doesn’t attend exclusive resorts and play volleyball with the creators of the NBC series “The West Wing”. The “common man” doesn’t have the knowledge or the finances to turn a $1000 investment into $100,000 overnight. In short, there is a lot about Bill and Hillary that is NOT “common”.

George W. Bush certainly appealed to the stereotypical “common man”. Here’s a guy who wasn’t an honor student. He has a history of drug and alcohol excess. He fumbles, bumbles, and mangles the English language like a frog in a blender. He talks and swaggers like a Texas redneck. Everything that you would expect of a “common man” leader, and he eagerly flaunts it.

Unfortunately that “common man” appeal also works against us in the world stage. More often than naught we’re smacking our heads wondering what the hell we just unleashed. We didn’t elect a diplomat, someone who could tackle the nuances of intellectual discord and slice through the lies and manipulations and still have us sound as magnanimous as we expect. No, we elected a redneck dry-drunk who acts like he’s still looking to settle the last bar fight he was in.

Clearly we want someone who works FOR us, but yet somehow still be just a little bit better than us.

And there’s really nothing wrong with that! There’s nothing wrong with expecting more of ourselves than what we are right now. That’s the real secret behind all of the changes in society.

But politicians love to stir the populist kettle and claim to be no different than the rest of us. Hillary’s sudden development of a southern drawl, and her desire to enjoy “a beer and a shot” at a local bar is a great example of this. At least when her husband visited the local McDonald’s at the start of his Presidential tenure it was genuine. It was something that he did when he was governor and he WANTED to continue it as President if not for the hassles from the Secret Service. Hillary’s sudden “common woman” appeal, though, had all of the appearances of it being staged.

Obama tries to fit in with the “common man” too, by going bowling and playing basketball. And maybe it is his background and where he comes from, but he manages to pull it off, which is why he was able to generate so much populist appeal.

McCain tries to fit in, which explains his eternal “Straight Talk Express” concept. But unfortunately he has been a Washington politician for far too long. He has as much “common man” appeal as Hillary.

And thus we have McCain’s attack on Obama as an “elitist”, picking up from Hillary’s original complaint on the young man from Chicago as being too much of a snooty intellectual to understand what the “common man” wants. A charge that is easily demonstrated on both McCain and Hillary; but, like I said, hypocrisy is pretty much a required element now in presidential politics.

I would dare suspect that this is also partly behind McCain’s pick of Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. Not just because she’s a woman, or even as a neo-con politician, but because she’s seen a “common man’s” woman. A verifiable redneck woman; right out of Gretchen Wilson’s stereotypical song. Make babies and field-dress a moose and look just as comfortable in city hall as in a double-wide while belting out a hearty “Hell Yeah!”

So what’s with the celebrity slam?

Well that’s just part of the “snooty intellectual” attack. Celebrities are seen as being out of touch with the rest of society. They live in their own little world, with their own little ideas of how the world should be. They surround themselves with myrmidons who tell them anything that they want to hear, and they’re loved and adored blindly by mindless fans that would do anything to just get a taste of the experience.

McCain likes to paint Obama to be like Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, not because they’re rich white women, but because they both have had highly publicized meltdown moments. Paris had her sex tape and personal photos leaked out to the Internet, and Britney had her nervous breakdowns, complete with a shaved-head and botched public appearances. If she were still alive, I’m certain Obama would be painted to be like Anna Nicole Smith as well. Anything to demonize Obama’s meteoric popularity and dismiss it as being just another pop fad that will fade away when the next “cool thing” comes along.

Plus celebrities really have been getting plenty of bad press of late.

But there is an inherent flaw in decrying the celebrity status… and that is that if you’re running for the highest office in the country, then YOU NEED to be a celebrity to pull it off!

Let’s get brutally honest here… if you are a popular candidate for president, then you are BY DEFINITION a celebrity! There is no such thing as a “sure bet nobody” in this campaign system. You may not be hanging out with Lindsey Lohan, but you certainly can’t get elected if you’re not in the same league as her or the rest of the “untouchables”.

Think for a minute about all of the other people who have been running in the primaries and caucuses against Obama and McCain. You may have known about SOME of them, but what about the ones that you knew NOTHING about?

Project Vote-Smart has a complete list of ALL of the candidates, including plenty of Democrats and Republicans that you NEVER heard about at all! How about a black woman named Michael Powell? She’s running for President as a Democrat! Or a white devoutly Christian woman named Virginia Algar? She has more military experience than Palin, and she’s also running for President as a Republican!

You never heard about them, because the party bosses decided that they weren’t worth supporting.

Long before you can become the “official” nominee, you have to have enough popularity to pass the primaries and caucuses. You HAVE to become popular. You have to become… a celebrity!

That’s the real secret to the “Kennedy mystique” that plagued Republicans. John Kennedy got elected, not just because of hard-ball Democrat politics, but also because he used the celebrity status to his advantage. He even got Frank Sinatra and his friends in the Rat Pack to push for him. Bobby Kennedy rode that same celebrity wave until his unfortunate demise. Teddy, on the other hand, couldn’t do it. He wasn’t as much a celebrity as his older brothers, but he still had enough political stroke to pass it on to Obama.

Even if the Republicans don’t win this November, Sarah Palin, by the simple act of being put on the ticket, is now a celebrity in her own right. Every time the media gushes praise about her and talks about how she is a “rising star”, they are reaffirming her status as the new celebrity. And don’t forget, McCain has been a celebrity for a while now. His campaign would have NEVER gotten past its financial dry spell early in the primary and caucus season if not for the fact that he was a political celebrity that stood out above the others.

Being a celebrity is not, in and of itself, a curse. It is merely a sign of interest, for good reasons or bad. In the world of politics, if you’re not a celebrity, then you don’t get the perks that go with it. John McCain and Sarah Palin are as much political celebrities as Barack Obama and Joe Biden… not to mention “Tom”, “Ted”, “Rich”, “Ron”, and “Will”… and, for that matter, are pretty much in the same league as Britney, Paris, and Lindsey.

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