The Wall Street Journal
Once upon a time, a first lady would take to the cover of Parade magazine to inspire ordinary Americans with behind-the-scenes tales about the first family’s wonderful White House life. Nowadays, the first lady takes to the cover of Tina Brown’s hot new Talk magazine, glosso di tutti glossi, to titillate star-struck Americans with behind-the-scenes tales of the president’s dysfunctional upbringing and marital infidelity.
A glossy magazine cover featuring Gwyneth Paltrow along with Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush, of all people, would once have been unimaginable. By now, the only question is which one will be wearing the bikini. (Gwyneth, thank God.) Jerry Springer, the onetime Cincinnati mayor turned TV freak-show host, has joined Mrs. Clinton in considering a race for the Senate. Perhaps when Sen. Clinton delivers a speech in the 107th Congress, the C-Span caption will read not “D., N.Y.,” but “My husband cheated on me because he was abused as a child!”
The beguiling aroma of celebrity has been wafting over the nation’s capital in recent years, warping Washington’s formerly reserved and self-serious sensibility in all sorts of interesting ways. In the old days status attached to those who best practiced politics, who talked most intelligently about it, who knew its inner workings best. To be a cabinet secretary or congressman was to possess a barony. To be a journalist was to traffic in confidences, the coin of the realm. And to be assistant to the president, with frequent access to the Oval Office — this was the center of the universe.
All of this is still true. But there is a new status in Washington, one of celebrity pure and simple. If celebrity is (for example) the interest in actors apart from their roles, of dancers apart from the dance, then the new celebrity culture of Washington is the interest in politicians apart from their engagement in politics. Daniel Boorstin’s definition of celebrity — being well-known for being well-known — was meant mockingly. But today in Washington some people aspire to it.
Washington politics has long been a kind of playground for celebrities interested in fashionable causes. The plight of farmers, of battered women, of followers of the Dalai Lama — Washington has grown accustomed to periodic outbreaks of celebrity dabbling. Washington’s real players have encouraged the phenomenon, as a way of drawing attention to the causes they are working on. But no one thought that once the television cameras cleared out, the stars would join the conference committee staff to iron out differences between House and Senate versions of the farm bill.
There are some signs now, however, that politics is becoming a celebrity vocation. To be sure, there have been more than a few instances in our history in which celebrities have gone into politics. If it’s fair to speak of a typical case, however, one may say that the celebrity develops a strong set of political convictions that become more important to him than celebrity life. People used to make fun of Ronald Reagan for being an actor. But in fact he was a politician who had been an actor and outgrown the role. Ex-quarterback Jack Kemp, likewise, became every inch a politician.
Could the same be said of the late Rep. Sonny Bono? Or did he merely find in Washington a new and attractive stage? During his brief time in Washington, he was best known not for any legislative or political achievement but for a hilarious bit of stand-up comedy about congressional life he delivered at the annual Salute to Congress dinner, a performance Washingtonians still describe as 20 of the funniest minutes in the history of official Washington, apart from Al Gore’s press conference about “no controlling legal authority.”
Similarly, who was Ross Perot but a celebrity businessman looking for a bigger company to control? And what was the improbable gubernatorial bid of Jesse Ventura, former pro wrestler, all about? The Minnesota governor’s former campaign manager now handles Mr. Ventura’s product-licensing arrangements.
Inevitably, the story of John F. Kennedy Jr. arises here as well. He was the living embodiment of what he seemed to be trying to achieve with his magazine, George — an amalgamation of celebrity and politics. Kennedy was inextricably bound by birth to both. Perhaps had he lived longer, he would have established himself either as a celebrity outside politics or as a politician pure and simple. But through the beginnings of what would have been, under better circumstances, middle age, Kennedy created and presided over a magazine seeking to glamorize and legitimize the connection between celebrity and politics.
Politics, in one famous description, is the art of the possible — the task of getting things done. Yet neither Kennedy nor his magazine seemed to have in mind doing anything. George’s slogan is “Not just politics as usual.” OK, but what then? The July issue has “Wild, Wild West” star Salma Hayek on the cover, as one of “the new Latino power brokers” who “are making America sizzle.” Do all Latino power brokers sizzle? Fajitas, of course, sizzle, which would seem to imperil the whole metaphor in ethnic stereotyping. Or perhaps really the only one who can be said to sizzle is Ms. Hayek, whose cleavage on the cover of George looks like an advertisement for the extreme sport of canyoneering.
Also on the July cover: “Exclusive: Linda Tripp’s children speak out”; “The populist message of pro wrestling”; “How to adopt a Kosovo refugee, by Steve Martin.” The latter is intended as humor, but all of it is kind of funny. Taking politics seriously as a venue for celebrity, George ends up a self-parody of celebrity politics. It is perhaps unfair to read too much into a magazine that never coalesced and that could not have existed were it not for JFK Jr.’s celebrity. But Tina Brown seems to be trying out a variation on the theme. George is something of a milestone, a marker of a passage.
Celebrity, in the form of fame, was once sometimes a byproduct of politics. The virtually anonymous Mr. Smith might go to Washington and make a name for himself by doing the right thing. But now, celebrity seems for some the goal of political engagement. One comes to politics not to make a difference, but to make a splash.
The only tolerable thing about the plague of lawyers on the cable shows defending President Clinton is that many of them were paying thousands of dollars a month to public-relations firms to get themselves booked to defend the president. Perhaps the same was true of some of his attackers as well. Evidently unsatisfied with their merely lucrative law practices, they sought celebrity as well — or at least they saw their peers, rich lawyers no more sagacious than they, spouting off on television, and demanded a just measure of glory for themselves. The substance of their comments was nearly irrelevant, a means to an end.
The same might be said of the new generation of attractive TV pundits and “pundettes.” Do they go on television because they have something to say about politics? Or do they say something about politics because that’s how to get on television?
Perhaps the celebrity infatuation with Washington and of Washington is a product of something genuine, namely, Washington’s immense and unrivaled power in the world. Vanity Fair doesn’t have a White House correspondent (though it employs former Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers), but some years back the magazine started buying tables at the White House Correspondents Association’s annual black-tie dinner and then throwing increasingly elaborate and exclusive “after parties.” Could this have been a product of a vague impression among the L.A.-New York set that they were missing something consequential? The Correspondents Association, for its part, never seems to have asked Vanity Fair what made it think it was qualified to buy a table.
On the other hand, there is at least a chance that the Washington celebrity fad, too, shall pass. George’s future, after all, is dubious. Jesse Ventura has probably peaked, both as a celebrity and as a politician. The Hillary interview in Talk seems to have evoked a collective ugh. And in the end, those political types who think they are celebrities because they appear on ABC’s “Politically Incorrect” will probably come to understand that real celebrities think they are nobodies — in much the way that political types think celebrities are bozos on the subject of politics.