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As was highlighted by the annual White House Correspondents Association dinner on Saturday, the interlocking tentacles of politics, media, and celebrity has become increasingly inseparable. With a media hungry for sensationalism and celebrity, the allure of covering politicians who talk like actors and actors who speak like politicians becomes irresistible. Celebrity sells the news, and the incendiary mix of Hollywood and politics has created a dynamic where it is difficult to tell where one leaves off and the other begins. Hence, we end up with a political culture devoid of intelligent conversation, wracked by gossipy media feeding frenzies dealing with minor or non-issues, and a banality that trivializes the profound and elevates the absurd.
The seamless nature of the relationship between Hollywood and Washington serves the purposes of both star and politician. According to one scholarly look at the issue of celebrities testifying before congressional committees, it is suggested “that celebrities are simple pawns of committees who use them to further their own political goals.” The celebrities get what they want most in life — attention and recognition of their value to society. Clearly, this symbiosis is what drives the connection between politics and celebrity, and there’s no sign that the two shall separate.
We can trace the marriage of politics and celebrity to the rise of Hollywood as a national medium in the 1920s. But it was the presidency of John F. Kennedy that witnessed the first real effort to bind the two together and make politicians themselves indistinguishable from movie stars.
In their book The Kennedy’s: An American Drama, Peter Collier and David Horowitz relate some telling anecdotes about JFK’s numerous trips to Hollywood prior to his first run for Congress in 1946. The purpose of these trips was largely to bed starlets. But, according to Chuck Spaulding, a childhood friend of JFK, the future president became fascinated with what he termed “charisma.” What was it? How did one go about getting it? After having dinner with Gary Cooper, Kennedy was struck by the sheer ordinariness of the actor and wondered why women swooned and men wanted to meet such a near non-entity.
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