The Celeb Factor in Politics

Right-leaning pundits, like The Chicago Tribune's Andrew Malcolm, have wasted no time in blaming Oprah's recent drop in ratings (she only has 7.3 million viewers) on her endorsement of Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama. Never mind that she's been obsessively featuring new age, elfish guru Eckhart Tolle -- way out there for some viewers' tastes -- or that the economy is sending stay-at-home moms back to work to make ends meet and cutting down on nonessential spending like magazine subscriptions (the circulation of her magazine is also down).

There was no shortage of celebrity intervention throughout the primary season. Most notable, besides the big O's endorsement, was the video, "Yes We Can," (10 million views in the first week), which served to further hip-ify everything Obama. Last week, newspapers from London to Los Angeles ran sexy headlines about Scarlett Johansson's claim that she and Obama have been exchanging e-mails on a regular basis. Politico reports that Johansson is not alone: "Jessica Alba is for Obama. So are Ryan Phillippe, John Legend, Anthony Kiedis, Taye Diggs, Kate Walsh and countless others." Michelle Obama, for her part, went on The View to yuk it up with Babs, Whoopi, and even McCain fan Elisabeth Hasselbeck.

All this blending of the political and the pop cultural has me wondering: Do Americans want their politics and their celebrities distinctly separate, or are voters comfortable with the shrinking distance between Hollywood and Washington?

To be sure, it's not an entirely new question. Hollywood has been funding candidates and making films about politics, not to mention crossing the electoral line (Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jessie Ventura, etc.) for a very long time. But the nature of celebrity involvement is changing. Oprah didn't just give Obama's campaign a nice big check; the nation waited with bated breath to see behind whom she would put her unprecedented power -- and then watched as she joined her chosen son on the campaign trail. In the age of YouTube, it could be argued that's video had some impact on the 108 percent increase among youth voters in the primaries this year.

It's also hard to miss the similarities between contemporary political messaging and some time-honored Hollywood plotlines, as the Prospect's own Paul Waldman so eloquently explored in a series of columns last summer: "Look at past presidential campaigns, and you see this pattern over and over: the winner tells a coherent, appealing story, while the loser tells a bad story, or more often, no story at all." He went on to break these stories down into their essential parts: "Part one of the story describes the state of the country and its government, clearly defining what is wrong. Part two describes the place the candidate wants to take us, the better day being promised. Part three explains why the candidate is the one and only person who can deliver us from where we are to that better day." That third part is where we see the Hollywood plotlines being drawn with a fairly heavy hand.

Barack Obama is the American Dream incarnate -- invoking his "unlikely story" with as much sentimentality as recent tearjerkers like The Pursuit of Happyness. You almost wonder what up-and-coming screenwriter is sitting in a coffee shop right now, sucking down lattes and writing Will Smith's future lead role in Barack's life story.

McCain is also tapping into a classic epic movie arc. His identity as a former prisoner of war and true American hero is the background -- albeit often subtly -- of just about every public appearance. Smartly, he has his public relations team (and the conservative media) advance this narrative, and McCain can play the role of reluctant protagonist. He's the tough and silent type, Clint Eastwood with a stronger jaw. Just think every patriotic war film ever made.

It's safe to presume that the celebrity worshippers -- the demographic that keeps Access Hollywood's ratings high and US Weekly's circulation booming -- are more than happy to see Oprah intervening and ScarJo and Obama corresponding. With or without a great campaign narrative, celebrity is the sugar that makes the political medicine go down for these E! Entertainment Television fans. It's exciting, actually, to think about the ways in which celebrity involvement has the potential to increase civic participation, even if it's a little gross that it's come to that.

Young people, in general, are fairly comfortable with the blurring of previously defined lines -- between business and nonprofit (The Gap's RED collection), philanthropy and fun (Living Liberally), fiction and reality (The Hills). The intersection between celebrity and politics seems like sort of a no-brainer to the under-30 set.

But, as the campaign season solidifies, will Obama's cache with celebrities justify older voters' worries about his seriousness? One of his challenges in the months ahead is to convince fence-riders that he will make responsible policy decisions, convey authority, and be fiscally strategic -- not exactly qualities you associate with Hollywood stars. One might wonder why Obama has time to jot notes to a starlet when he has a family and a campaign to run. Or one might question the relevance of a celebrity endorsement for a political candidate in the first place.

On the other hand, will McCain need to dig up some celebrity endorsements of his own if he is to wrangle any of the youth vote away from Obama? So far his supporters look more like an old-timers' muscle club: Curt Schilling, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sly Stallone, Tom Selleck, and -- the wild card -- Rip Torn. Like Michelle Obama, Cindy has done her turn on The View.

A recent survey by California-based E-Poll Market Research gave 1,100 voting-age men and women nationwide a list of 46 attributes and asked them to identify which of these traits they believe applies to a given celebrity or candidate. McCain's closest celebrity match was, believe it or not, Bill Cosby. And Barack Obama's? Ronald Reagan. Seeing the first black Democratic presidential candidate matched with a Republican -- and his Republican opponent matched with a black man -- is enough to make you believe that, just like in Hollywood, anything could happen.

Only time will tell what effect celebrity endorsement and even campaign involvement has on the two men vying for the oval office, but one thing is for sure: no part of our culture is immune to the omnipresence of celebrity, not even electoral politics. The mystique of the stars shapes our political messages, attracts and repels voters, and has the potential to influence whether the next four years turn out to be comedy, tragedy, or triumph.