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FiveThirtyEight

Politics

Yesterday, Al Franken joined the most exclusive club in America. No, not the Senate, nor even the 60-member-strong and theoretically filibuster-proof Democratic majority caucus within the Senate, but the even smaller club celebrities who have won major public office. (The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza has a pretty good roundup of celebrity politicians here.)

In 1990, political scientist David Canon published a book entitled Actors, Athletes and Astronauts, in which he examined–and, with the benefit now of almost two decades of hindsight, apparently presaged–the era of the celebrity politician. Actually, the book is more broadly about political amateurs, defined as those who win high office despite a lack of appointed or elected experience prior to their election. Canon talks about how most political amateurs in the general sense end up becoming lamb-to-the-slaughter losers in no-win races, but how, thanks to their special celebrity status actors, athletes and astronauts are more competitive and can thus more easily break out from the pack of amateurs and win.

Although Franken was always very involved in politics as an activist and donor, he surely qualifies as an amateur under this definition. And his comedic style certainly qualifies as amateurish; I mean, c’mon, the man once did a bit wearing bunny ears and a diaper!** Franken has appeared in some feature films, including the leading role in his Saturday Night Live-created character Stuart Smalley; but he’s mostly a television actor and comedian. (My favorite Franken role was as the other half of a baggage-handling duo, along his early-career but long since forgotten comedic partner Tom Davis, in Trading Places.)

What I have long found ironic is that Republicans tend to bemoan the influence of Hollywood in politics when, in fact, they have had more than their share of actors-turned-politicians, including former Iowa Congressman Fred Grandy (pictured above, middle, in case you had forgotten about the Love Boat’s “Gopher”), former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson and, most notably, President Ronald Reagan, who you may recognize as the other politician pictured above.

Frankly, I’m wary of celebrity-politicians, whatever their occupational background or ideological leanings. Reagan’s aura covered up for a lack of substance and, late in his presidential tenure, even a declining coherence. Grandy worked hard, but was otherwise not particularly distinguished House member. John Glenn was a solid senator from Ohio and JC Watts was a key fixture in the Republican House and on the national scene, though it’s hard to disentangle how much of Watts’ wattage stemmed from the fact that he was both a celebrity former football player and almost equally rare elected species, namely a black Republican. Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning has–how to put this?–slowed down a bit late in his career. And Thompson never could make up his careerist mind, jumping from the political world to acting to senator, and then back to acting and then back again into politics for his ill-fated 2008 presidential bid; supposedly Thompson is lazy, but maybe he’s just torn between the two versions of celebrity. Meanwhile, I really don’t think it serves the people of California to have Arnold Schwarzenegger as their governor, nor would Warren Beatty or Rob Reiner be much better successors to the Terminator. For my money, the best example of the celebrity-turned-politician is the late Jack Kemp. Whatever you think of his ideas, he studied the issues closely and took governing seriously.

I realize that in the era of reality TV, where non-professionals can become television celebrities, maybe celebrities who are political amateurs are just as entitled as anyone to serve in elected office. But I’d much rather have a person who worked her way up through the state legislature and the House run and win a Senate seat, than Al Franken. Oh, and the use of the feminine pronoun in that last sentence was not random: You’ll note that when we talk about celebrity politicians we are almost invariably talking about men.

**CORRECTION: At the time of the posting, I simply did not know that this photo was a doctored fake created by the Ohio Republican Party. Given many of the outrageous characters Franken has played over the years, it’s not unreasonable to conclude he had. (We’re not talking Thurgood Marshall here, folks.) In any event, apologies to readers and to Sen. Franken.

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