Political Celebrity Intrusions and Inventions
A brief history of celebrities involving themselves in politics, and whether preoccupation with the politics of celebrities is worth our time.
On December 21, 1970, before a landslide 2nd win and Watergate destroyed Richard Nixon’s career, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Elvis Presley, met the President at the White House. The purpose of the visit was to, ironically as it turned out, promote the administration’s anti-drug campaign. James Brown also paid a visit to Nixon, to the chagrin of the hardest working man in showbusiness’s many fans.
Gerald Ford had soccer legend Pele come to the White House, though the Brazilian, in a show of bipartisanship, also visited Jimmy Carter. Even the Man in Black, Johnny Cash, dropped in on several presidents. These were orchestrated efforts to have the glitter of celebrity rub off on grubby politics. But did they change the arc of a presidential election?
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Sometimes, the intrusion of celebrity into politics can have a deleterious effect. In a piece entitled Falling Down: Gerald Ford, Chevy Chase, and the Power of a Pratfall, writer Matt Fotis states:
“Gerald Ford was perhaps our most athletic President—he played college football at the University of Michigan, winning back-to-back national championships in 1932–33—so, ironically, his lasting sketch comedy legacy is Chevy Chase falling. Unfortunately for Ford, several public stumbles were caught on camera, most notably a tumble down the stairs of Air Force One. Chevy Chase latched onto this moment, with a helping hand from the media, to create the persona of Ford as a stumbling fool—the accidental accident-prone President. The press and Chase fed one another, with every stumble by either man turning into news.”
Did a late-night comedy sketch change the course of a presidential election? Many factors go into the selection of the chief executive. Ford was unique in that of all 46 presidents to date, he was the only one to ascend to the White House without being on a national ticket, hence the term “accidental.” First, Vice President Spiro Agnew was felled by scandal, and after the appointment of Ford to the office of VP, Nixon also went down in the Watergate saga. Ford became President without any mandate.
Ford’s pardoning of Nixon, a move that was politically harmful to him but later seen as an act of statesmanship, did not help. Then mix in a bout of high inflation and the fascination with the seeming everyman peanut farmer turned governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter. Finally, Ford was challenged for the nomination by Ronald Reagan, further diminishing the enthusiasm for his candidacy with the conservative wing of the GOP. Even with these factors, in the election of 1976, Carter was only 2% ahead of Ford in the popular vote. Carter’s electoral college margin was 57 electoral votes. If just Ohio and Pennsylvania had flipped, Ford would have won. Given the close election, the portrayal of Ford as a bumbling incompetent was probably a factor.
I have noted how presidents brought in celebrities over the past 50 years, but the dynamic changed in 2008. There was a popular entertainer involved. The queen of talk shows, Oprah Winfrey, endorsed Barack Obama for the presidency. What was different was that Obama, who had barely two years of Senate experience under his belt, was the first presidential candidate who was seen as more celebrity than politician. In a piece called The Obamas as Celebrities, which appeared in Politico in 2008, author Ben Smith notes:
“Like every in-demand A-list couple who concedes to allowing a peek behind the curtain, the Obamas insist this will be the “first and last” up-close and personal look at them as a family. What they don’t admit to is that this was a carefully orchestrated, well-thought-out brand presentation. And it isn’t actually the first highly personal look at the photogenic family. No, it’s the culmination of a publicity campaign designed to take advantage of the couple’s charisma and Hollywood-worthy good looks. Team Obama is using popular mass-media vehicles such as People, Us Weekly, The View, Access Hollywood, and The Colbert Report to familiarize the American public with the candidate and his wife.”
I have always thought of Obama as more invented than authentic. From his reputed brilliance to his Solomonic-like demeanor, the reality is that Obama is more cunning than intelligent, more ruthless than compassionate, and more tribal than statesmanlike. He is as much a hack as most politicians—he just did not seem so to the public.
Obama paved the way for the first genuine, non-politician celebrity to ascend to the White House. Some might conjecture that actor Ronald Reagan was the first. Yet as acting opportunities began to dry up, from 1954 to 1962, Reagan had a role as a General Electric spokesman that was political in nature.
Jacob Weisberg, in his article The Road Reagandom, writes:
“Ronald Reagan began working for GE in 1954 as a liberal anticommunist and finished in 1962 so far to the right that the company felt it had to drop him as a spokesman… Nonetheless, it stands as the pivotal stretch when his mature political views and skills emerged. Reagan described working for GE as his ‘postgraduate course in political science,’ the time when his conservative ideology was formed.”
Reagan followed this period with two successful terms as governor of California from 1967 through 1975 before his presidential win in 1980. One could even claim that Teddy Roosevelt was a celebrity due to his San Juan Hill fame. But like Reagan, he served in government prior to running as VP in 1900. And there was a certain curiosity about John F. Kennedy (who had his own dalliances with celebrity in the person of Marilyn Monroe). But Kennedy was a war hero and had served in Congress nearly 14 years prior to his run in 1960.
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Unlike Reagan or Kennedy, Trump had only delved directly into politics for a few months, a failed run as the Reform Party candidate in 2000, prior to his formal GOP candidacy in 2015. Trump likes to extol his business bona fide, but his actual success came from a series of New York land deals back in the 1980s, partly engineered from connections set up by his father. Other than those, he is more PT Barnum than land baron. From the 1980s until 2004, Trump consistently sought the guise of an actual celebrity hawking his wares, making cameos in movies and TV shows, appearing on Howard Stern, and twice, hosting the aforementioned Saturday Night Live in 2004 and 2015. The latter time was when he was a candidate for president.
Then came The Apprentice. It was Trump’s dream job. A number one-rated TV show with him portraying the ruthless, demanding, tough guy boss who fires people. This was not a Home Alone cameo or hawking cologne. This was a genuine celebrity role, and Trump reveled in it. Holman Jenkins at The Wall Street Journal argues that Trump’s run for president was not a great desire to make a historical imprint but instead as a larger platform for his celebrity. “Mr. Trump’s is a ratings-based politics. It’s not poll-based, much less policy- or ideology-based. His primary interest is creating episodes using familiar props to show himself a dramatically effective actor.”
This brings us to the Taylor Swift controversy, if one could call it that. In the pursuit of a suitable chunk of viewers, listeners, likes, and clicks, several right-wing pundits have catered to a tiny but dedicated group of conspiracy theorists. In this case, they suggest that Swift and her dating of Kansas City Chiefs Tight End Travis Kelce may have been some psychological operation cooked up by nefarious Biden operatives to inflict damage to Trump’s campaign of this year.
At the center of this is Swift’s possible endorsement, ala Winfrey, of Joe Biden. I struggle just a bit with Biden as a mastermind. He can barely get through a teleprompted 10-minute speech and has no idea where his Defense Secretary is over a four-day period. So, no. I am not buying Biden as some Michael Corleone figure designing elaborate plots and schemes and playing 3D chess with the American people.
As for Swift’s endorsement of a Democrat? Long ago, I made peace with the fact that if I wanted to engage with modern American entertainment, I would have to put the performer’s politics aside. From my beloved Bruce Springsteen to the comedy Parks and Recreation, I have made my peace. In the latter, one of the underrated shows of all time, Amy Pohler’s Leslie Knope has an unrequited crush on…Joe Biden! And, of course, Saturday Night Live, which also featured Kelce and Swift as hosts (see how this comes full circle), is unwatchable if one wishes to avoid anti-conservative sentiments.
Yes, the NFL keeps showing Swift. At the AFC Conference Championship, they showed her for a stunning 25 SECONDS (the horror). Meanwhile, I got what seemed like fourteen hours of insurance commercials and another seven of Chiefs Quarterback Patrick Mahomes munching on Subway sandwiches. Swift is the biggest entertainer of our age. She also has a demographic following that does not overlap with football. Why would the NFL believe showing an attractive, uber-popular young woman who is not only sampling their product but loving it is somehow a bad thing?
Part of the stupidity on the right is the cool factor—or lack thereof. Carter had Johnny Cash. Nixon had Elvis. A king of country and The King, period. Trump has Kid Rock and Ted Nugent, and maybe Scott Baio will show up. The GOP has a notable celebrity void, and I think this rankles the more unhinged media elements on the right.
I have an idea so simple and sane that today’s current GOP would undoubtedly reject it. Quit worrying about celebrities and focus on pocketbook issues like jobs, inflation, crime, and controlled borders. How about this messaging: the Democrats have Taylor Swift, but GOP policies are the only ones that can enable a family to afford to go to her concerts or see Kelce at a Chiefs game and do so feeling safe.
AD Tippet is the founder and Publisher of the Conservative Historian. Aves has conducted extensive research in Political, Religious, Social, and Educational history across all eras and geographies. He has been writing and podcasting for over 12 years. In 2020, he published his first book, The Conservative Historian. He has degrees in history, education, and an MBA. @BelAves
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