What amazes me more than anything else about the celebrity culture is that the title commodity has become so transferable. If you're famous at one thing, you're taken seriously at another. Any other. It's automatic.
For instance, Shaquille O'Neal scores a lot of points, so people buy his rap songs. Dennis Rodman grabbed a lot of rebounds, so people bought his book. Monica Lewinsky chafed her knees for the greater good of the Chief Executive of the United States, so people buy her purses. Rosie O'Donnell reacts to sitcom actresses and teen heartthrobs as if they were visions of the Holy Mother and she a pilgrim at Lourdes, and McCall's magazine decides to rename itself in her honor.
And Al Gore loses the closest presidential race in American history, and Columbia University hires him to teach journalism.
For the most part, academia has welcomed him. Joe Foote, president-elect of the Association of Education of Journalism and Mass Communication: "I can't imagine anyone not wanting the vice president to be a visiting professor." Dean Mills of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of Missouri at Columbia: "He has a lot more sense than a lot of guys from the other side of the notebook."
But Ken Bode, dean of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, dissents, and for the same reason that I do. "I certainly believe in bringing politicians to our campus to interact with students," Bode says. "We had Ken Starr here. We had the mayor of Boston here. But we didn't make any of them a visiting professor of journalism. Gore is getting a faculty appointment. He doesn't have the qualifications for that."
Bingo. Shaq can't sing and Rodman can't write and Gore is not a reporter. True, he did some work for the Nashville Tennessean a few decades ago, but this hardly qualifies him for a position on the faculty of what is probably, and deservedly, the most prestigious journalism school in the United States.
True, he has spent a lot of time with reporters in his life, but hypochondriacs spend a lot of time with doctors; that does not make them qualified to teach medicine. Besides, rather than enlightening him, Gore's experiences with the media are just as likely to have turned him cynical, so that he has taken to the lectern not so much to impart wisdom as to let off steam, settle old scores, or perhaps even ingratiate himself to journalists so that he'll get better treatment from them in 2004.
And true, he is a bright man and a quick study, but barely more than a month elapsed from the final resolution of campaign 2000 to Gore's first class of the year 2001. Surely that is not enough time to prepare a course that is worthy of a place in the Columbia curriculum.
And, in fact, initial comments from some of Gore's students indicate that this is precisely the case. One of them, Ian Swanson, reveals that much of what Gore tells them has been said before, and often. He is "a little derivative," Swanson explains, when discussing such things as the 24-hour news cycle and the rise of television punditry. Other students compliment Gore for the interesting tales he has to tell, his pleasant manner, and his sense of humor. Swanson, in fact, says that although Gore was "a little guarded" at first, he soon got over it. "He was nice. He tried to warm up the crowd. A lot of people thought he was funny."
But that is simply to say that they praise him for the attributes of celebrity, not of scholarship.
Or to put it another way: Gore seems to be more of an entertainer in the classroom than an instructor, and considering the costs of Columbia's tuition these days, parents of future journalists are justified in thinking that, as good as the shows might be, the cover charge is a more than a little stiff.