Hollywood Politics


Sen. Barack Obama and Gov. Sarah Palin, so far as I can tell, have one salient attribute in common: they are both charismatic.  The media refer to each as possessing "rock star" status.  Indeed, they do!  When plying their craft, they exhibit personal magnetism; they are attractive people.  Obama is an exceedingly articulate and urbane presence in front of a crowd. When in dark suit and tie, he seems to have stepped from the pages of Gentleman's Quarterly.  Palin is a remarkably beautiful woman – intelligent and quick-witted to be sure – whose eyewear seems studiously calculated to convey a sense of seriousness without sacrificing an impression of feminine mystique.  She has already appeared in Vogue, although the photograph on the right is a parody.  Steve Quinn of the Associated Press states, "She's well suited for the magazine, attractive as she is accomplished. The 43-year-old Palin's high cheekbones could rival any runway model's; she's well-dressed, and often wears her brown hair with gold highlights fashionably swept up."  Make no mistake about it, two "mediagenic" personalities are what we have here.

As incongruous as it may be, Obama and Palin have reawakened a sense of messianism in American politics. It is as if the throngs of citizens supporting each expect the advent of a fresh, vibrant social and political reality. "The old has passed away, behold the new has come." The phenomenon, which I am describing, is none other than "star-worship," pure and simple, in which panache and show-quality are synonymous with depth of spirit and magnanimous character.

Please understand that I am not arguing that these candidates are necessarily devoid of the latter characteristics.  Nor am I expressing disgust with either of them. They are exciting to watch and to hear.  They each bring a verve and vivacity to national politics that is rare and that I have not witnessed in nearly half a century. In fact, I tend to think that what I saw then is enfeebled and frail compared to what is happening today. John F. Kennedy possessed charisma alright; his administration was the world of Camelot.  But he still came across as all too human. He would, for example, occasionally demonstrate annoying idiosyncrasies. In his speech to the nation explaining the Cuban missile threat, I remember him mispronouncing the words "clandestine" and "Cuba."  His brand of power politics was widely regarded as "more of the same" rather than as a new genre of political thought and action. All of this is to say that I cannot visualize Barack Obama mispronouncing a word, any word.  Nor can I conceive of Sarah Palin as comporting herself in a manner other than as "the all-American gal."  They each seem to be approaching their own respective models of perfection.

So welcome to America's new political fantasyland!  It is fun, is it not, to be carried to Utopia by "leaders" who are larger than life and, in every detail, superbly glamorous?  As enticing as this "LaLa Land" may be, it is not a healthy place in which to live. There is something ominous about a political arena, which is fashioned by Hollywood. The focal points of a candidate's success become his or her classy appearance and ability to deliver a rousing speech in flawless fashion, written of course by someone else. There is no need for a candidate to worry about tough-minded interrogation since the media can be managed.  Either they will coddle the candidate, or he or she will avoid them.

America's "Hollywood politics" constitutes, I think, a recent development.  Can you imagine how a homely, depressed, and facially asymmetrical Abraham Lincoln would fare on television today?  Or how a five foot eight inch Theodore Roosevelt, sporting glasses with thick lens, would impress media moguls?  Or how a beauty-conscious citizenry might respond to an incurable paraplegic like Franklin Roosevelt?  Lyndon Johnson had it right when he quipped that "every time I go on television, I lose money."  You bet he did.  Had television been with us from the inception of the republic, I think that the catalogue of American presidents would now be virtually unrecognizable, with many of the greatest presidents having been long since lost to us.

Both Obama and Palin are unquestionably Hollywood celebrities. Neither has been questioned closely and critically for long, if at all. Talk show hosts and newspaper journalists generally do a poor job of it. These clowns are usually too busy worrying about how they look and sound to allow them to zero-in on the substance of anyone else's ideas or feelings. Secondly, genuine cross-examination is a skill that few, if any, of them have acquired.

Let me tell you what I would like to see.  Any national politician, especially one running for the presidency or vice-presidency, should be publicly questioned in the most rigorous way, and perhaps for a total of three or four hours, aired on radio and television over the course of several days. The proceeding should resemble what transpires in the courtroom rather than on The Oprah Winfrey Show. A knowledgeable moderator, like Chief Justice John Roberts, should direct the action.  Close and critical questioning from a panel of nationally recognized and respected thinkers and commentators should follow. The questioning might roughly resemble direct and cross-examination. This type of hard-hitting, laser-like questioning would introduce us to the candidates in a way such as to expose their disposition, mental acuity, and grasp of important subjects. The American people deserve an instrument by which to separate the wheat from the chaff.

The bottom-line is that Americans with the most heightened insight, skill, and determination should be the ones seeking, and elected to, high office.  After a few rounds of rigorous questioning like I have described, I predict there would again emerge the viable hope that even average-looking people of modest means would have a chance for a high-level political career in America.  The last thing we need in America is Hollywood or its infection of our political system.

September 11, 2008