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Kennedy wanted what they had. As his father Joe had pointed out to him, since the Depression and New Deal had obliterated the “old social hierarchies,” Hollywood had the ability to “manufacture status overnight” and create a “new aristocracy.” The family would, as Joe famously put it, sell Jack “like a box of soap flakes.” He wasn’t kidding. With his vast wealth and intimate contacts in the national media, JFK was appearing on the cover of every news magazine in feature articles that touted his “vigor” and “charisma.” Jack had precious little of either, being a sickly young man (probably afflicted with Addison’s disease), and a terrible case of stage fright. But the PR build up was intense — and it worked. By 1956, despite a paltry record in Congress, Kennedy was being taken seriously for the number 2 spot on the Democratic ticket.
The first television presidency was a triumph of hype and image creation. Kennedy actually accomplished very little in 3 years but he is still ranked by the public as one of the top 10 presidents of all time.
It was in 1968 that the Democratic party fully embraced celebrity. The party took advantage of a new generation of actors who, free of the rigidity of the studio system that was terrified of political activism and the potential for bad publicity, spoke out against the war, racism, poverty and the rest of the liberal “social justice” issues for which they are so closely associated with today. The candidacy of Eugene McCarthy galvanized the liberal Hollywood community and led to McCarthy’s surprising showing in New Hampshire that convinced Lyndon Johnson not to run for another term.
The Republicans got on board the celebrity bandwagon too, but it wasn’t until 1980 and the campaign of Ronald Reagan that endorsements from Hollywood became important for fundraising to the party. Most of the GOP celebrities were older, established Hollywood types who became famous under the studio system and whose patriotism and conservatism blended naturally with the Republican party. Once the Democrats abandoned many of the values that were shared with ordinary Americans, they, like Reagan himself, left the Democratic party for the friendlier confines of the GOP. Today, the GOP has its share of celebrity endorsers, most notably in the country music industry and among sports figures.
It was the Clinton campaigns and administration that made the celebrity-political marriage binding. For Clinton, it was the cash — millions of dollars in campaign contributions flowed into his coffers from Hollywood and other artists. To reward his Hollywood friends, Clinton often took them on foreign trips, allowed them to stay at the White House when in Washington, had private dinners with them, and called several of them “friends.”
A decade later, we can witness the spectacle of politicians walking arm in arm with actors, and media heavies escorting the famous to some of the numerous parties, after parties, and receptions that have become part of the swirl that is the White House Correspondent’s dinner. The Guardians of Democracy in the media have been well and truly captured, seduced like star-struck teenagers by the thrill of rubbing elbows with internationally known stars while getting chummy with those they are supposed to be watching in congress.
Is it any wonder that we have a President who epitomizes this unholy mix of celebrity and politics — a flim flam man who sold the American people an image of a leader who turned into an empty suit once the adulation of the crowds melted away and the cold, hard reality of crisis intruded on his daydreams?
ABC News had 2 reporters covering the “red carpet” for the event where they stopped both politicians and actors, asking for their opinion on issues like gay marriage and the debt ceiling. The problem was, if you closed your eyes, you would be unable to tell which was the actor and which was the politician. Both had memorized the talking points to perfection. Both were giving a performance. What was once a symbiotic relationship between politics and celebrity with the media along for the ride has morphed into a three-headed monster that feeds off itself and its own deleterious impulses, reinforcing the worst that each contributes to the political culture.
It is hard to imagine a worse situation considering the crisis facing the American polity in the second decade of the 21st century.
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