Celebrities Hold Political Spotlight, but Don't Get Burned

If T-shirts were votes, the next resident of the White House would more likely be a Stewart, Clooney, Colbert or Winfrey than a Bush, Clinton, McCain or Obama. And it's not just because of the perennial fact that celebrities in America are a lot more popular than politicians.

Fake newsman Jon Stewart, silver screen lothario George Clooney and media powerhouse Oprah Winfrey all have been forced to defuse rumors that they might seek to attain the highest office in the land. Others also wait in the wings.

"I would totally vote for Stephen Colbert," said 27-year-old hair stylist Caroline Bach of New York. "And I think we have had far more absurd presidents than Oprah."

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So why do some people wish their next leader had spent more time earning an Oscar or a star on Hollywood Walk of Fame than legislating or governing? And how much of a shot would a Bill O'Reilly "homage artist" like Comedy Central's Colbert have of turning his next gig into a four-year stint with room and board and a great view of the Washington Monument?

The popularity of showbiz types has everything to do with the venomous relationship between the people and those who represent them, according to political and pop culture analysts.

"Lots of Americans are disgusted with politics," Cato Institute executive vice president David Boaz said. "Celebrities fulfill their dreams of non-political politicians, politicians who would act in the public interest instead of acting like politicians."

Indeed, if polls are to be believed, almost anybody would do a better job than the politicians at the helm right now.

Americans' opinion of the people they chose to run the country is in the tank, with polls showing vast disillusionment with the war in Iraq, mounting cynicism because of sexual improprieties and alleged corruption on Capitol Hill and throughout Washington, D.C., growing pessimism about the War on Terror, fears the economy is benefiting the rich at the expense of the poor and exhaustion from all the partisan rancor.

Congress' approval rating has hit an historical low, and President Bush is persona non grata even at select GOP candidates' rallies.

"The reason we hear these things is people hear political language and think it's incredibly frustrating," said Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. "In a low period of political discourse, every word out of a politician's mouth goes through a food processor of veteran shapers."

In the effort to get away from it all, more and more Americans are turning to movies to remind themselves of a non-existent golden age of U.S. politics.

"Everybody wishes for this ideal candidate who reminds them of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" or "Dave" or some other fictional president who will rise above special interests and politics, and anybody in politics doesn't qualify because they have things they stand for and against, and that's what politics is about," Boaz said.

And it doesn't hurt that successful actors and comedians are, by their very nature, eloquent and compelling speakers to whom an audience can instantly relate.

"People hear people like Oprah and Jon Stewart and George Clooney talking with energy and vision, and it's really appealing," Thompson said. "Hopefully, one thing to come out of this is not that people like these come out for president but that more of our political leaders learn how to speak to the people again."

Celebrities also become attractive as candidates because they can act like blank canvasses on which individuals can paint their personal views with broad strokes, projecting onto their favorite characters the right positions on corruption, aid to the poor and ending violence. At the same time, celebrities aren't required to fill in the nuances that are bound to turn off a large portion of the public such as what they would do about tax cuts, spending on universal health care and policies for stopping gang fights or terrorism.

"These people are above politics, and people think, 'Since he seems like a good person and cares about people, he's like me.'" Boaz said. "Reagan was like that at first for most people, but when he became a real candidate, half the people didn't like [him] because he had real positions on things."

The main factor aiding the catapult of celebrities into the political game is name recognition. That people have actually heard of them really helps drive celebrities' ability to be heard.

But even with all their advantages, it's unlikely any of today's crop of potential presidential celebs have a real chance if they went head-to-head with Sens. John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama or heavyweights like Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

"Someone like George Clooney ... liberals look at him like he's not tainted by the Washington crowd, by special interests, but in practice George Clooney would make the same deals with Democratic interest groups that any other politician does, and he wouldn't look like Gabriel over the White House anymore," Boaz said. "If you polled for Jon Stewart, you'll get 1 percent. He's a niche taste in America."

Thompson was similarly skeptical of a Stewart bid, despite the apparent push by hipster boutiques to move him from cable TV to the Oval Office.

"When I hear 'Jon Stewart for president,' that's more like 'Archie Bunker for president,' mostly as a jest," Thompson said. "He's done really, really important work for the past several years, and his show has done some of the job journalists should do, but he's not presidential material. Anyway, who would they get to do 'The Daily Show?' Craig Kilborn again? Please."

Another barrier: When celebrities try to demonstrate their political grit on the big screen, dealing with the real issues confronting America today, oftentimes people stop listening. Culture critics avoided mentioning the recent Robin Williams vehicle "Man of the Year," in which the comedian finagles a presidency with straight talk and his trademark ad libs. "Man of the Year" went nowhere at the box office, insuring that no one would ever put Mork from Ork alongside the idealized likes of president-actors Jimmy Stewart, Kevin Kline or Martin Sheen.

"'Man of the Year' had Barry Levin, Lewis Black and Robin Williams being allowed to do what [they do] best, but it'd just been covered already," Thompson said. "And to be fair, it didn't flop. It came in No. 3, but it performed below expectations."

But both Thompson and Boaz agree that one celebrity could be the spoiler to watch for.

"Oprah has a broader interest than the rest, and would bring people together," Boaz said.

"If you talk about ludicrous candidates for president, Oprah wouldn't be any more ludicrous than [Ross] Perot was," Thompson said.

For diehard fans like 30-year-old New Yorker Jessica Brown, a Stewart-less White House is just fine.

"I wouldn't want my 'boyfriend' Jon tainted by politics anyway," the magazine editor said. "He's way too good for such a dirty job."

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