Stardom and politics

Comedians in Washington, politicians on TV—welcome to the new entertainment-political complex


Stardom and politics
Rush Limbaugh; Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin; Christine O'Donnell/ Mark Peterson/Redux/ Nicholad Kamm/AFP/Getty Images/ Jessica Kourkounis/The New York Times


Politics and entertainment have always been close cousins—both pursuits require a measure of charisma and a talent for self-promotion. Ronald Reagan was an actor before he was a president. So was Arnold Schwarzenegger before he was “the governator.” Hollywood stars have long made appearances on Capitol Hill—where Angelina Jolie has testified about the plight of refugees and where in 2002 the House of Representatives education appropriations subcommittee took testimony on funding for school music programs from the Muppet Elmo. But this political season has seen the rise of a new hybrid of celebrity politics that blurs the lines between politician and entertainer, and the line between hustling for votes and hustling for dollars.

Exhibit A is Sarah Palin, who, after rising to celebrity on a failed vice-presidential bid, resigned her job as governor of Alaska to become a full-time celebrity. She looks and sounds like a politician, and raises money (her political action committee, Sarah PAC, raised $1.2 million in the last quarter). But since leaving the $125,000 (all figures in U.S. dollars) per year governor’s office, Palin is making a bigger personal fortune—an estimated $12 million—selling books, appearing as a commentator on Fox News, hosting her own reality television show, Sarah Palin’s Alaska, and giving speeches for up to $100,000 a pop.

Her success has had spinoffs. Daughter Bristol Palin has signed with a speakers’ bureau, asking $15,000 to $30,000 per speech. She and the father of her baby, Levi Johnston, sold a story of their reconciliation to US Weekly magazine for a reported $100,000, according to the New York Post, and shopped around a reality TV show about their life together until they broke up—again. Now Bristol is a sequined regular on TV’s Dancing with the Stars, and the relative merits of her rumba are discussed in celebrity magazines and political websites alike. (“While the dance was technically solid, the artistry was . . . not really there,” opined the dance connoisseurs at Politico.) Meanwhile, Johnston has appeared on Kathy Griffin’s My Life on the D List, in ads for pistachio nuts, posed semi-nude for Playgirl magazine, and is now closing the circle by announcing a bid for mayor of Wasilla, Alaska—the job once held by Palin.

One of Palin’s endorsed candidates for the mid-term elections on Nov. 2 is conservative activist and pundit Christine O’Donnell, who is running to represent Delaware in the Senate. If she wins, she’ll have at least one acquaintance there: the comedian Al Franken, now a sitting Democratic senator from Wisconsin and author of books such as Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations. Franken and O’Donnell used to appear on the show Politically Incorrect, which has supplied the footage of O’Donnell disclosing that she had “dabbled in witchcraft.” Of course, if O’Donnell loses, don’t rule out a talk show on Fox News.

Fox, after all, holds the special distinction of having in its stable four potential GOP presidential candidates. In addition to Palin, Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister and former Arkansas governor who ran for the GOP nomination in 2008, has his own weekend show on Fox News. Fox also has contracts with former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and former House speaker Newt Gingrich. (CNN is also getting in the game: it recently gave disgraced former New York governor Eliot Spitzer the first major step in his public rehabilitation—a prime-time talk show alongside Pulitzer Prize-winning conservative columnist Kathleen Parker. Spitzer’s call girl, Ashley Dupre, has switched careers too, embarking on an advice column in the New York Post.)

Another Fox celebrity, radio shock jock turned conservative talk-show sensation Glenn Beck, proved his political influence on Aug. 28 when he held a massive “Restoring Honor” rally on the National Mall in Washington that featured a mix of patriotism and evangelism. “Something that is beyond man is happening,” Beck told the crowds. “America today begins to turn back to God.” And it tunes in to Beck.

In response, comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are organizing rallies on the National Mall on Oct. 30. Stewart’s is called the “Rally to Restore Sanity,” and it is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of people. Stewart also happens to have a book to sell. Meanwhile, his Comedy Central colleague, Stephen Colbert, is hosting the “March to Keep Fear Alive” on the same day. Last month, Colbert appeared in Washington before a congressional committee to talk about the subject of migrant farm workers. His testimony swerved from in-character satire (“I don’t want a tomato picked by a Mexican. I want it picked by an American, then sliced by a Guatemalan and served by a Venezuelan in a spa where a Chilean gives me a Brazilian”) to an earnest plea to address the plight of migrant workers, leaving perplexed lawmakers debating whether they had just embarrassed themselves or pulled off a publicity coup.

The TV hosts like to downplay their political influence. Glenn Beck has called himself a “rodeo clown,” and Stewart often refers to himself as “just a comedian.” Stewart presents his rally as a satirical act: “We’re looking for the people who think shouting is annoying, counterproductive, and terrible for your throat; who feel that the loudest voices shouldn’t be the only ones that get heard; and who believe that the only time it’s appropriate to draw a Hitler moustache on someone is when that person is actually Hitler.” But attendees can be forgiven for feeling they are participating in politics.

And while Republicans liked to deride candidate Barack Obama as “celebrity-in-chief,” it is also true that while he campaigned for president he made millions selling his memoirs. Now in the White House, he is about to release a new children’s book, part of a $1.9-million three-book deal.

Entertainment and politics are hard to distinguish in the case of right-wing radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, who is under a $400-million multi-year contract, and has openly said he chooses his words to maximize his ratings. “My objective is to satisfy [my] audience so they come back the next day.” He has also talked about his desire to “tweak” the media: “I know how to yank their chain. I know how to send them into insanity. I know how to make them spend the next two days talking about me,” he told MSNBC last year. Last March, when Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele criticized some of Limbaugh’s comments and called him “an entertainer,” Steele faced a backlash. “Rush Limbaugh’s whole thing is entertainment,” Steele told CNN. “Yes, it is incendiary. Yes, it is ugly.” In a demonstration of the radio host’s clout among Republicans, the chairman was very quickly eating his words in a statement: “I respect Rush Limbaugh, he is a national conservative leader, and in no way do I want to diminish his voice.”

The rise of the political-entertainment industry can be linked to the end of mass-audience networks and the creation of the multi-channel universe—from talk radio to 24-hour cable news channels that have to fill the air with cheap programming, to the rise of Twitter and Facebook, all of which allow the creation of like-minded communities, be they Limbaugh’s claimed 20 million listeners or Stewart’s and Beck’s more modest audiences of 1.5 million and two million viewers respectively. “It’s technically easier to do all of this if you can have a business model that focuses on a relatively small but very passionate audience,” says Markus Prior, a political scientist at Princeton and author of Post-Broadcast Democracy: How Media Choice Increases Inequality in Political Involvement and Polarizes Elections. “It is a commodity that you can monetize easily. Rush Limbaugh can reliably sell to advertisers who know what audience they reach. Those people are dedicated and come back.” And while celebrity politician-entrepreneurs are the exception, Prior says, “It’s not unreasonable to predict that this will become more common as a result of having this explosion of options that you have.”

When political entertainers or entertaining politicians hold rallies or write books it can be hard to tell if they are building a movement or just building a brand. For example, Sarah Palin “is continuing to create this celebrity identity, which she is able to monetize in a number of different ways,” says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

The celebrity politician is a bit like a Hollywood actor waiting for the right script. “They build up an identity and a fan base and decide based on circumstances what roles they want to take: ‘If a really good role in politics comes up, maybe I’ll run,’ ” says Thompson. “ ‘Otherwise I can do my show and my book.’ ”