The news that Caroline Kennedy is formally seeking to fill Hillary Clinton's soon-to-be-vacant Senate seat surprised many, but given the recent celebritization of the political process, it makes perfect sense. Armed with the most iconic moniker in American political life, the logic is that she'll be able to attract attention to the state of New York and meet her own fundraising needs (as well as presumably helping out Gov. David Patterson with his.) The most striking aspect about her increasingly attractive candidacy, however, is that if she ascended to office, the greatest story ever told in American politics would begin a new chapter, as the spark of Camelot came alive once again.
The notion of using a last name to fill in for years of experience in public office strikes some as wrongheaded, but it echoes a larger point that people around the world can relate to: politics has become increasingly performative, driven by elaborate stagecraft, world-class dramatic writing and political actors who cast themselves as various kinds of leading men or women. Even the plot lines of world events have become increasingly epic: at the moment we're dealing with the threat of extinction from global warming, an economic crisis, terrorist attacks and nuclear proliferation. These dramatic times are coupled with a relentless news cycle, growing tabloid influence and pressure to maintain audience share—no wonder then that politicians are increasingly conducting themselves like their celebrity counterparts.
This point was brought home during the American election in John McCain's memorable campaign spot that compared Obama's appeal to the vacuous celebrity of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. The attack ad captured the fact that, as a result of rapid tabloid growth and instant media, politics is now driven by the same ruthless dynamics as the celebrity cycle: stars are born on Monday, elected to Olympian status by Wednesday and neutered by scandal, or, even worse, boredom, by Friday, leaving a power vacuum waiting to be filled by the next telegenic candidate. What the McCain camp failed to realize, however, was that what they saw as a setback—Obama's larger-than-life public image, which seemed to invite idol worship—was in fact one of the driving forces of his candidacy. For a significant percentage of the country, his five-star performances in stadiums across the country and at Berlin's Victory Column were just what they had been waiting for. Forget David Cook. On Nov. 4, by a margin of 192 electoral votes, Obama was overwhelmingly voted the new American Idol.
For skeptics who still hold fast to the idea that substance still triumphs over mediagenic style, consider the following examples. In the past three U.S. elections, the winners have all been stars in their own right: the dramatist Bill Clinton easily overshadowing the senior George Bush, comedic cowboy George W. Bush trumping crusty Sen. John Kerry and, in the most evenly matched lineup in recent memory, in terms of narrative appeal, the biracial bearer of an uplifting message, Barack Obama, beating the grizzled war hero, John McCain. The phenomenon extends the world over: in Russia, Vladimir Putin, in a deliberate PR maneuver, posed for shirtless pinup shots in camouflage fatigues while on a Siberian holiday and had the images posted on the presidential Web site, attracting major media attention around the world and cementing his reputation as a macho man of action at home. In France, Nicolas Sarkozy embarked on a very public courtship of supermodel playgirl Carla Bruni, turning his first post-divorce affair into a media circus that ended in marriage, with his new wife on the cover of endless magazines, including a high-profile issue of Vanity Fair. In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez has positioned himself as the pugilistic champion of the poor who also happens to be a friend of the rich and famous: visits from Sean Penn, Naomi Campbell and Danny Glover all help to ensure that his message gets maximum exposure.
Increasingly the boundaries between politics and celebrity are blurring, as the skill sets required to attract campaign donations and sustain media attention and voter interest converge with the kinds of qualities that allow for the creation of an A-list actor: charismatic, camera-friendly and populist, with professionally styled wardrobe, hair and makeup. A decade ago it would have seemed unthinkable that an action star could be elected the governor of California, but today no one bats an eye when a former "Saturday Night Live" star and satirist is within reach of winning Minnesota's Senate seat, or when the host of MSNBC's "Hardball" dangles the possibility of throwing his hat into Pennsylvania's political ring. These aspiring representatives have worked in an unconventional direction, parlaying their public profile into a viable platform for a political career and then refining policy positions to accompany their nascent candidacies.
Some observers are understandably concerned that this shift in the rules of engagement portends ill for the level of political discourse or the quality of leadership, but it doesn't necessarily have to be a negative. What is important is that politicians recognize the kind of story the world is struggling with, and that they tailor their performance accordingly, using their celebrity as a means to an end to advance their political agenda. Unlike Bush, who seems to conceive of life as one big spaghetti Western, or Clinton, who set his own sordid melodrama smack in the middle of historical events, today's leaders need to hit all the right notes of reassurance, encouragement, rationality and rapprochement that are required to navigate the obstacles that the world finds itself confronted with. Subtlety, depth of character and versatility are more important than a megawatt smile and the ability to turn on a crowd—think Meryl Streep rather than Cameron Diaz. But if someone has all of the above, all the better to get people inspired by politics again, and to motivate greater participation in the process. Besides, politics just seems like more fun when Sarah Palin is guest-starring on "SNL" and Ahnuld is making wisecracks at campaign rallies with his trademark "I'll be back." In the coming days I suspect we're going to need every possible excuse to smile.