columns

Jan 11, 2018

Celebrities and the Presidency: No Room for Glamour in the Oval Office

Celebrity candidates have built-in name recognition, but offer little in the way of actual qualification for office.

America has always wanted its politicians to be stars.

Long before Virginia Postrel wrote compellingly about the glamour of Barack Obama as a political campaigner, long before the televised debates between Nixon and Kennedy made a candidate’s personal appearance and media savvy as important as his policy positions, America wanted glamour, pizzazz, and razzle dazzle from our leaders.

One of the earliest debates in the newly constituted United States of America was about what to call the new President. For the weeks between his election and his inauguration debate raged about what General George Washington’s new title ought to be. John Adams thought that the majesty of the office required that Washington be addressed as “Your Highness.” Other suggestions included “Your Exalted Highness” and, again from Adams, “His Highness, the President of the United States, and Protector of the Rights of the Same.” Without a fancy title, the senators worried, the President might not receive the necessary respect in diplomatic matters. Without a fancy title how would anyone know the President was important?

Happily, the newly ratified Constitution solved the argument when the senators were reminded of Article 1, Section 9, which declared that “No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States.”

Mr. President it was.

I’ve been reminded of the debate over Washington’s title, and the first hints of the American desire for superstar Presidents by the events of the last few days. One TV star, Donald Trump, is currently in the White House—put there at least in part by his sheer recognizability and his talents for engaging the crowd and playing to the media. Another TV star, Oprah Winfrey, is currently considering the possibility of running for the White House—surely counting on her own recognizability and her devoted fan base to help put her there.

Neither TV star possessed a dram of political experience or legal expertise prior to the moment they decided to set their sights on the oval office.

Given that Trump and Winfrey are from different political parties, we can’t blame the prospect of consecutive terms of a made for TV White House on either the Democrats or the Republicans. The Democrats rightfully objected to Trump’s political inexperience when he began his campaign, while the Republicans supported him as a canny outsider with business skills. Now that Winfrey is toying with a run, the Republicans are rightfully objecting to her lack of experience, while the Democrats are defending her as a canny outsider with business skills.

It is not, in other words, a party problem.

It’s a popularity problem.

With a political world that is more and more about grabbing as much of the 24 hour news cycle as possible and garnering more and more Twitter followers to repeat and promote your comments, media stars are naturally increasingly comfortable in the political world. They arrive on the scene media-ready, prepared to speak in soundbites, and with already recognizable faces, names, and mannerisms. That makes TV stars seem like dream candidates to political parties and donors.

Promoting a candidate like Trump or like Winfrey means that you don’t have to go through the tedious process of introducing a candidate to the public. It means they already have an established audience. People have invited them into their homes on a daily or weekly basis because of their television shows. They have come to trust them, to like them, to feel like they know them. And with their wealth and their glamourous lifestyles constantly on display in the media it seems obvious that people like Trump and like Winfrey are somehow more glamourous, more important, and more worthy of being President than some experienced politician in a rumpled jacket.

It’s a dangerous road. The populist appeals of the left are no better than the populist appeals of the right. And the answer to a right wing TV star with no political experience is not a left-wing TV star with no political experience.

We were able, for a brief moment during the Founding, to resist the siren call of a glamourized Presidency. For years now, we have succumbed to it.

What America needs now, I think, is a boring President who will starve the media machine, strip the glamour right out of the Presidency, and get politics off the Fashion and Lifestyle pages.