Stagecraft And Statecraft

Jesse Ventura fancies himself a kingmaker, but he may get outclassed by another celebrity with a shaved head. Last spring Bill Bradley received a campaign contribution from a man described on Federal Election Commission records as "Michael Jordan, retired," and the betting is that former Bulls coach Phil Jackson, one of Bradley's closest friends, will prevail upon Jordan to come off the bench at a key moment and campaign with Bradley. For Democrats, the big voting blocs in Southern states on March 14 are African-American. Al Gore still has the advantage here because most black voters are emphatically unfatigued by Bill Clinton; they love him. Clinton will no doubt campaign vigorously for Gore in black churches and elsewhere, and those Southern states are the vice president's insurance policy if he loses New Hampshire and New York, where he now trails. But Gore had better pray Jordan doesn't suit up.

Such is the reach of renown in American life. I first learned not to scoff at celebrity endorsements when I watched Michael Dukakis lose the governorship of Massachusetts in 1978 after Boston Red Sox star Carl Yastrzemski gave a timely endorsement to his opponent. Nolan Ryan's stalwart pitching support helped George W. Bush go from minority shareholder of the Texas Rangers to governor in 1994. Most celebrities have less direct impact on campaigns, but the accelerated mixing of entertainment and politics has given them a new cultural sound stage to strut and fret their hour upon. The question for figures like Ventura or Warren Beatty is how they use it.

The first American celebrity was George Washington, who shrewdly used his stature to stabilize and moderate the young republic. But beyond a handful of other generals and newspaper publishers, the rich and famous have not run for the highest office. Starting in the mid-20th century, celebrities did begin to play an important ancillary role, offering clues to leaders on how to fill the theater of the presidency. Franklin Roosevelt, who once tried to sell a screenplay idea about the Navy, was fascinated by Hollywood. John F. Kennedy hung with Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack and intuitively understood how to project glamour. Richard Nixon preferred Elvis Presley and Bob Hope. Celebrities in politics became taste badges. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall couldn't elect Adlai Stevenson, but they helped brand him as a classy guy.

The rise of Ronald Reagan changed the game. Reagan's success didn't kick off a big rush of celebrities into elective politics; most won't make the personal sacrifices necessary for public service. But the Gipper's fusion of stagecraft and statecraft began a broader blurring of occupational lines. In Europe, shipworker Lech Walesa and playwright Vaclav Havel have shown that nonprofessional politicians can be effective and inspirational heads of state. In the United States, millionaire businessmen with no political experience are increasingly being elected governor or senator. Some make the transition and serve well; most don't. Across the board, old hierarchies and definitions of "qualified" have broken down. Scruffy 22-year-old entrepreneurs get millions from bankers who used to tell them to get a haircut; a wrestler with no college diploma runs Minnesota. Experience has become almost a negative--as if it connotes stale thinking. In politics or business, the pitch trumps the resume almost every time.

Especially when the subtext of the pitch is that most basic of American values--freedom. It's not hard to see why Jesse Ventura strikes a chord, especially with young people. From political correctness on campus to ubiquitous anti-sexual- harassment training in corporations, Americans have been told to stifle themselves, lest someone feel offended and sue. Even when this helps to curtail genuinely bad behavior, it makes people want to rebel, at least vicariously. So certain celebrity loudmouths, from Howard Stern to Ventura, become a way to project fantasies of acting out, of being free to say any damn thing you want, even if it's revolting. The entertainment value of this surrogate venting comes from the tone, not the content itself.

But sometimes celebrities can help hoist real content into our tower of babble. Warren Beatty is too old-fashioned (no Web site yet, except the unauthorized beatty4president.org), too predictably liberal, and he has never put himself on the line with public service. But he gave one of the best political speeches of the year last week. Because his real goal isn't the presidency but shaming the Democratic Party into a greater social conscience, Beatty doesn't have to worry about raising money. That means he can talk about "the moneyed, honeyed voices of ridicule and reaction" and how we've become a "plutocracy" where "the wealthy class rules." As a sign of how tame most of our political dialogue has become, his harshest attacks against "money power" in America were actually quotes from a speech by Abraham Lincoln.

Celebrities, with the help of the media, tend to trivialize politics by turning it into entertainment. Their presence further subordinates substance to performance, and encourages the media to review how something "plays" rather than to analyze what's being said. Most famous people have nothing original to contribute to politics. But sometimes, as Ronald Reagan showed, theatrical arts can be used to advance serious political ideas. If Warren Beatty can figure out how to keep money power out front as an issue, he may help clarify some critical choices. If other celebrities want to trade on their fame to join the debate, they, too, must figure out how to touch not just our fantasy lives, but our real ones.