September 12, 2003
Not all stars shine in office
Elected celebrities have ranged from jokes to legends
By DANA WILKIE
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON – There are some who can make their colleagues cringe with embarrassment, such as when entertainer-turned-senator George Murphy tap-danced down the Senate aisle to cast a vote.
Others, like TV actor-turned-congressman Fred Grandy, do a competent job but have character traits that prevent them from achieving national stature.
Occasionally, they can become political legends, like actor-turned-president Ronald Reagan.
Many celebrities have run for political office, as movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger is doing in hopes of replacing Gov. Gray Davis in the Oct. 7 recall election. Stars whose election bids were successful arrived at City Hall, the state Capitol or Congress with the blessings and baggage of their show-biz past, but their tenures have been decidedly mixed.
"People sometimes look at the mix of celebrity and politics as a sign of the fall of American civilization, but in a lot of cases the job description of a celebrity movie star has got an awful lot of the same things as the job description of a political leader," said Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University professor who's written several books on how entertainment influences culture.
"You have to perform on camera effectively, appeal to a wide constituency and balance doing the job you want to do against courting the approval of your audience," he said.
The rush of celebrities aiming to be lawmakers in recent years might make the phenomenon seem like a new thing. In fact, it's been going on a long time. P.T. Barnum, the famous 19th century showman and circus owner, was mayor of Bridgeport, Conn., and served two terms in the state Legislature.
The list of celebrities who became politicians also includes professional athletes. Those who have served in Congress include J.C. Watts, a star college quarterback; Steve Largent, a former NFL wide receiver; Jim Bunning, a Hall of Fame pitcher; and Tom McMillen and Bill Bradley, who both played basketball in the NBA.
Invariably, one of the biggest obstacles the celebrity-turned-politician faces is the skepticism, or outright disdain, from other lawmakers.
"We know these people as fictions, and suddenly they're running for office, which is the greatest nonfiction story out there," Thompson said. "And that's what makes the celebrity ... difficult to reconcile with the new identity of political leader."
In fact, skills honed in the entertainment world can serve celebs well in political office, said Matthew Donahue, a professor of popular culture at Ohio's Bowling Green State University.
"They're charismatic, and that definitely provides some degree of influence among the people they're dealing with," Donahue said. "And they bring a large number of connections from the moneyed and upper classes."
Sonny Bono, who hosted a popular '70s variety show with wife Cher, was elected mayor of Palm Springs in 1988, then won a California congressional seat in 1994. His name drew crowds at fund-raisers for fellow Republicans, and his self-deprecating manner even won over congressional colleagues who had questioned his intellect.
That doesn't mean Bono was an effective lawmaker. By most accounts, his only significant contribution was his fight to save California's dying Salton Sea, a struggle taken over by his fourth wife, GOP Rep. Mary Bono, after Bono died in a skiing accident in 1998.
"When he died, it was covered for three days in the media, but it had little to do with his lawmaking ability," said John Orman, a co-author of "Celebrity Politics" and a politics professor at Connecticut's Fairfield University. "His constituents loved him, but he didn't reach national stature."
In fact, the list of mediocre lawmakers who came from the silver screen and TV worlds is long, said Darrell West, who helped Orman write "Celebrity Politics."
"When you think about people who've served in Congress, they haven't left much of a legislative record," West said. "They're not known for passing laws as much as for raising money for their parties."
Ben Jones, who played Cooter on the "The Dukes of Hazzard" TV show, served two terms as a Democratic congressman from Georgia in the late 1980s and early '90s but was never considered a standout. He lost his seat in 1992.
Murphy, the 1930s song-and-dance man who became a California senator in 1964, was a reliably conservative vote in Congress. Yet many of his colleagues considered him a minor player – even a joke – and he lost his bid for re-election.
Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the University of Southern California, was a congressional intern during Murphy's time. She remembers that others ridiculed Murphy the day he tap-danced down the Senate floor aisle.
Clint Eastwood, the actor of "Dirty Harry" fame who became mayor of Carmel in 1986, helped speed up much-needed city projects, but his one term was defined more by who he was than by what he did.
Perhaps more effective was Grandy, who played the bumbling Gopher on "The Love Boat." Elected to Congress in 1986, the Iowa Republican served eight years and became a knowledgeable advocate for farm issues, health care and the arts. He also helped unearth the House Bank scandal, which involved the bank covering checks for members of Congress who did not have adequate cash in their accounts.
Yet Grandy's tendency to go his own way annoyed Republican leaders, and that might have prevented him from becoming a bigger player in Washington.
Jesse Ventura suffered from a similar character trait. The wrestling star who became Minnesota governor was able to cut some government spending, but he never forged enough of a bond with state lawmakers to achieve other goals. He decided against seeking a second term.
Several experts said celebrities do better in office if they have some earlier experience with the political process.
Former Sen. Fred Thompson, the Tennessee Republican who is now a regular on TV's "Law & Order," was an attorney for the Senate Watergate Committee before becoming an actor and appearing in more than 20 films. After joining the Senate in the early '90s, he quickly became a political star – as a leading advocate for term limits, a prominent voice on national security and a member of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee.
Reagan, of course, is in a class by himself. He honed his oratory for years through a relentless schedule of politically oriented speeches as pitchman for General Electric. His stint as president of the Screen Actors' Guild gave him political lobbying experience and made him a presence testifying in Sacramento before he ran for California governor, and won, in 1966. Reagan went on to serve two terms in the White House, where he transformed politics with the "Reagan Revolution," which focused on smaller government. He also secured a spot in history as "The Great Communicator."
"The whole notion behind American government was that we would elect from us people like us," said Thompson, the Syracuse professor. "The idea of an actor running for office is not counter to that idea any more than a lawyer running for office."