It is often said that the best politicians — the truly great, once-in-a-generation leaders — are those individuals that often choose to disregard negative public opinion, the future of their own political careers or their party’s fortunes, and disdain criticism of their character and reputation, all in a quest to rise above petty partisan discord, think outside the box, and truly achieve something, anything, for the greater good of the electorate.
Unfortunately, as we’re all aware, individuals of this calibre are far more the exception rather than the rule.
And we need not delve too deeply into the qualities that can make up a bad politician — avarice, megalomania, and a will to power to name but a few — because most of us are presented with examples of the bad apples every time they flick on their television and rest for more than a few moments to take in Question Period in the House of Commons, or the circus monkey antics of the American Senate or House of Representatives.
To be fair, most choose to flick the channel away from the agedly-greyish pallour and high-pitched bleating of the Honourable Member for Such and Such, to their arguably more fascinating obsession with fictional entertainment and Hollywood royalty, and the celebrity info-tainment cycle that appears to dominate the lives of so many as we escalate our electronic experience to new heights in the 21st century.
Many people would argue that politicians are already actors — perhaps better actors than have ever graced a stage or danced before a camera, with their ability to unify consent or opposition, in some cases to use shallow charisma to overcome a lack of substance. But in the late 20th century, starting first in the United States, two competing streams of celebrity status — politicians and the film industry — were beginning to merge.
This, of course, is a veiled reference to Ronald Reagan, a Hollywood luminary who used his celebrity status to vault himself first into the California governor’s chair, and later to ascend to the Office of the President of the United States. A Republican with strong conservative values and opinions, Reagan was the first actor-turned-politician to achieve real power in the United States. At the time of his election in 1981, there was little speculation about how the American public resonated with Reagan’s on-screen all-American image achieved through films like Kings Row, Hellcats of the Navy, or Santa Fe Trail. Many voters appeared to be thoroughly unconcerned about casting a ballot for an individual whose on-screen reputation as a hero might cloud the perception of his true personality. No fool, Reagan exploited this reputation and his skills as an actor throughout his presidency, to the point where there is still speculation today as to where the actor ended and the leader began.
His wife, former First Lady Nancy Reagan (who recently passed away) was another former actress who during her husband’s terms in office was constantly a source of criticism in the media and other circles for allegedly wielding immense behind-the-scenes political influence and power, to the point of even being involved in the sacking or selecting of key officials in her husband’s administration, or for consulting astrology to recommend her husband’s movements or allegedly influence policy decisions.
After their first bite, Americans apparently developed a taste for morphing actors and celebrities into politicians, because over the years many have followed in Reagan’s wake. In California, Austrian body builder and superstar of such cultural treasures as Kindergarten Cop, Conan the Barbarian, and The Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger, managed to spawn the portmanteau “Governator” when he become the 38th governor of California back in 2003, a role he held on to until 2011.
In Minnesota, professional wrestler-actor-politician Jesse Ventura (remember Predator? Two future state governors acting in the same film has to be some kind of Hollywood record, except it happened again in The Running Man) became his state’s governor from 1999 to 2003, creating a whole industry of t-shirt sellers with slogans like “My governor can beat up your governor” and other catchy allusions to Ventura’s history as a Navy SEAL and his professional wrestling career as Jesse “The Body” Ventura.
Other celebrity crossovers in the United States with varying levels of success have included Clay Aiken (unsuccessful nominee for U.S. House of Representatives, North Carolina’s 2nd congressional district), Clint Eastwood (Mayor of Carmel, California), Jerry Springer (Mayor of Cincinnati, Ohio) and Sonny Bono (U.S. Representative, 44th District of California).
In Canada, our politicians and leaders have generally remained in the political mainstream, perhaps with the exception of Pierre Elliot Trudeau, a prime minister who managed to be become a celebrity by being a politician (not an easy task to execute) with marriage scandal (including a media frenzy over estranged wife Margaret’s liaison with The Rolling Stones) and even dating Hollywood royalty like Barbara Streisand in 1969-70. Swooning young women were infatuated with the “swinging bachelor” which became a factor in his election in 1969 as “Trudeaumania” took hold. But although he knew how to manipulate a camera — better than many of his colleagues at the time — Trudeau was never an actor or celebrity before entering politics. And while his charismatic son Justin shows some of the old Trudeau flare as he hob-nobbed recently with Washington (and Hollywood) royalty, the Trudeau family is more Canadian political royalty rather than second-rate celebrity.
Now while we’re on the subject of second-rate celebrities, what description would be complete without Donald Trump, the recent darling of the borderline fascist right in the United States, and star of the top-notch reality TV series The Apprentice? As Trump’s baffling star continues to rise in the United States and it becomes more and more likely he will ascend to the leadership of the Republican Party, questions will need to be asked — not unlike Reagan before him — about where the on-screen persona ends and true substance begins. Many of his opponents argue that disturbingly, this persona may actually be the man — complete with bombastic statements, racist or paranoid philosophies, and an ego that could overflow to bursting one of his own tower developments. It would be hard to deny there isn’t an aura of clownish unreality that seems to surround the man like invisible armour.
What Americans will need to ask themselves when they go to the polls to select a new president is if clownish unreality coupled with hard-core social conservatism, all sprinkled with a few dashes of disastrous foreign policy, is really the leadership image they wish to project to the nation, or the world? If it is, that’s democracy, and who are we to tell another sovereign nation how to handle their affairs. But there will be more than a few darkly comical guffaws in quiet rooms in capitals around the globe when the loudmouth with the elaborate comb-over begins to class up 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And that may only be the beginning.
The problem with celebrities as politicians — despite all the many shortcomings that could be listed here — is suspicions about their sincerity. Actors are, after all, professionally trained in mimicry and convincingly becoming something, or someone, that they’re not. It’s the underlying assumption about the entire profession.
Curious, then, that the general public would choose this profession as an object of their political affections. A profession dedicated, in a sense, to professionally lying to people? Not really. It’s human nature to associate screen roles with an actor’s character, however unwarranted. And as for the professional lying, I seem to remember someone saying that about politicians once. Birds of a feather flock together.
At a deeper level, though, it comes down to character and achievement. A Hollywood actor could be the most successful individual in his profession, without ever having achieved anything that might better the human race, other than pumping some philanthropic millions into this cause or that. Actors, in a very real sense, don’t do anything other than act.
Politicians, on the other hand — for better or for worse — actually do things, be they doctors, or lawyers, or school teachers, or auto mechanics in their former lives. At least these professions have some semblance of reality for the common man — not wine, cheese and caviar at the after-party following the Oscars, jet-setting the world in a private Lear, or your name on some paving stone for people to snap pictures of. These things are outside of the common experience of almost every American, and yet these individuals seem to continue to resonate with their voting public.
Given the choice between a billionaire second-rate reality TV star and someone who has actually lived through even a touch of the hardships of modern life? I know who I would choose.