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Enduring Hope

I was coming back from a vacation in Europe---I had, in fact, just gotten into a cab at a New York airport, the driver turning on an all-news radio station---when I heard that Bob Hope (search) had died. 

The media paid a lot of attention to the story.

A few days later, I heard that Ben Affleck (search) and Jennifer Lopez (search) were starring in one of the worst movies of the new millennium.

The media paid a lot of attention to that story, too.

The former reports remind us that there are a few celebrities who deserve the spotlight as much as do political figures and other varieties of conventional newsmaker; the latter remind us that the majority of celebrities do nothing more than take up space in the national consciousness.

And, in fact, by contrasting Hope on the one hand and Affleck-Lopez on the other, it is possible to distinguish between actors and singers and comedians who ought to matter to the media and those who should not.

One of the reasons Hope mattered is that he endured.  There is no more trivializing aspect of the modern celebrity culture than its habit of instant anointing.  Someone stars in a single movie and is profiled in People.  Someone releases a single CD that makes the Billboard Hot 100 (search) and is interviewed on "Good Morning America."  Someone tells a few jokes on Comedy Central (search) and is written up in Liz Smith’s (search) column.  Not only have these people not endured; they have barely flickered.

Among the celebrities to appear on the cover of Vanity Fair (search) magazine in the year 2000 were Chris Klein, Jordanna Brewster, Selma Blair and Marly Shelton.  As far as I know, none of them is even a flicker anymore.

Another reason Bob Hope mattered is that he affected the times in which he lived.  He made civilians laugh during the Depression (search) and the second World War; he made soldiers laugh during the Korean and Vietnam W (search)ars.  He did not promote himself through his politics, as is the case with so many celebrities today; rather, he refrained from overt political declarations and instead promoted the well-being of those serving our country through his actions. 

“Patriotism,” according to the words of Dr. Samuel Johnson (search), “is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”  Patriotism, according to the actions of Bob Hope, was for many years the first priority of the comedian.

Which is another way of saying that Hope was less involved in himself than many other celebrities are.  Many years ago, I spent a few hours with him at his home in southern California.  He showed me around the place, pointed out his voluminous joke files, chatted with me at poolside.  I spent about two hours with him---and there were no flacks hovering, no image-makers directing his actions, no bodyguards attesting to his self-importance. In the case of Bob Hope, one met the person, not the celebrity; in the Affleck-Lopez case, as in so many other cases today, there is no evidence of a person beneath the veneer of fame, certainly not a person worth knowing.

One wonders about the devaluation of celebrity (search).  One concludes that the reason it is so readily bestowed today is that the bestowers---which is to say, all of the star-worshipping fans in front of their TVs and newsstand magazine shelves---are such a mediocre lot.  Ian I. Mitroff and Warren Bennis put it as follows in their book The Unreality Industry (search):  “The gifted or accomplished became a threat to the average person, for whom, as a result, the stars were deliberately created so that the masses could live out their fantasies.” 

Yes, Ben Affleck can act.  Yes, Jennifer Lopez can sing and act.  But I knew Bob Hope, Bennifer, and, believer me, you are no Bob Hope.

To the latter, I, as so many others, say:  Thanks for the memories.  The former can only hope that memories of Gigli (search) do not linger.

Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch, which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT.

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