This column was written by Kevin Kusinitz.
Every four years, when I deliberate over who should get my vote for president, I ask myself one vital question: who cares about celebrity endorsements?
Celebrities, that's who. If politics is showbiz for ugly people, then showbiz is politics for high school dropouts. Endorsing a candidate brings a reflected glory greater than a spotlight who wouldn't want to be best friends with the guy or who gal with the power to nuke the rest of the world? Unspoken is the ego factor: This candidate is worthy of me. Therefore, you peons shall know for whom to pull the lever. Over time, these endorsements become as ubiquitous as the Empire Carpet jingles and equally annoying.
At least one star seems to realize how silly it is. "I'm Tom Hanks," says the former star of Bosom Buddies on his recent MySpace video. "And I wantto be the next president of our country. As an official celebrity, I know my endorsement has just made your mind up for you." Good line. Unfortunately, he undercuts the irony by giving a straight-faced Obama endorsement as if it ... meant something.
Tom, baby loved you in "Catch Me If You Can." And when all the haters came down on "Forrest Gump," I defended you by blaming the hype, not the movie. But why should I care what lever you're going to pull come November 4? More to the point, why do you think I should care? (You lose five points, by the way, for condescendingly admitting that "even Ronald Reagan" possessed integrity and the power to inspire.)
Just who got the celebrity-endorsement ball rolling is unclear. For all we know, John Wilkes Booth could have done a benefit performance of "Julius Caesar" for George B. McClellan in 1864. Certainly, his subsequent actions suggest a mighty disappointed voter.
Interestingly, it was a Republican, Warren Harding, who seemed to have been the first 20th century candidate to seduce show business. Although considered one of our worst presidents, Harding must have been savvy enough to realize that having Al Jolson appear at his rallies was a good way to bring a crowd.
Jolson, one of the biggest stars of his time, worked his magic singing "Harding, You're the Man for Us" to enthralled audiences. Perhaps credited as a kingmaker, Jolson was subsequently asked to perform "Keep Cool with Coolidge" four years later. Performing in blackface puts Al Jolson in the doghouse for many people, but popularizing, if not originating, the celebrity endorsement surely ranks a close second.
Jolson, like the men who ran the studios, was the rare showbiz Republican. But not even right-wing autocrats like Louis B. Mayer or Jack Warner could resist the charm of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Like Bill Clinton decades later, FDR knew how to massage even his toughest opponents. Also like Clinton, he was fully aware of both the mighty power and fragile egos of movie folk. So when the president needed the country to get behind his New Deal, his first whistle-stop, figuratively speaking, was Hollywood.
Some presidents have voters in their pocket. In no time, FDR seemed to have Hollywood in his entire wardrobe. A classic short, "The Road is Open Again," features musical star Dick Powell trying to write a song honoring FDR's economic program. (You try coming up with a rhyme for National Recovery Administration.) Stumped, he seeks inspiration from an ethereal American Idol panel consisting of George Washington, Abe Lincoln, and Woodrow Wilson. Washington admits having been worried about a depression-mired United States, but is relieved to see that "President Roosevelt has it headed right again."
Lincoln nods sagely. "All it needed was a plan of action and a man with the courage to put things right!" Listening to The Father of Our Country and Honest Abe extol the president must have widened FDR's famous grin to the breaking point.
Another pro-NRA short stars Jimmy Durante rasping a proto-rap song, "Give a Man a Job," encouraging, among other things, employers to hire twice the workers by splitting their work, and hypochondriacs to visit doctors they don't need. As Jimmy sings, "If the old name of Roosevelt/Makes the old heart throb/You take this message straight from the President/And give a man a job!"
Hollywood willingly nay, amorously taking orders from the president? If he's a Democrat, absolutely. It's the patriotic thing to do. Nowhere was this clearer than the climatic production number of Warner Bros.' "Footlight Parade," as Busby Berkley dancers form huge, successive images of the American flag, Franklin Roosevelt and the NRA eagle.
A sociologist could rightly make the case of cult of personality. Nevertheless, these movies reminds us of a time when patriotism wasn't ridiculed in popular entertainment. It was celebrated. When was the last time you saw a movie that didn't use the image of an American flag ironically? Or portrayed an American president as something other than a human punch line or a force of evil?
There were a few holdouts to the FDR cult. Lionel Barrymore and Gary Cooper were staunch Republicans. W.C. Fields' antagonism was more personal, rejecting the president's suggestion of a salary cap for movie stars. (Regarding a particular radio broadcast, Fields wrote a friend, "It would have been a lucrative adventure hadn't [taxes] taken such a bite out of my check due, I imagine, to the high cost of Mrs. Roosevelt's travel expenses.")
But by and large, Hollywood was Roosevelt-crazy, reaching its zenith nine years later with an astonishing 1944 Election Day Eve radio broadcast sponsored by the Democratic party, airing simultaneously on all the networks. (And the left thinks President Bush controls the media!) Hosted by Humphrey Bogart, the special plays like a weeklong broadcast of Turner Classic Movies compressed into 60 minutes. Nearly every major movie and stage star of the day appears, some for only a few seconds, urging America to vote for Roosevelt. Roosevelt himself appears at the finale, sounding exhausted and ill he had about six months to live.
Listening to the program today, what's most striking is its civilized tone. Bogart and company thoughtfully and articulately make their case as to why Roosevelt is the better man for the job. (For Bogie, it's because FDR "is one of the world's greatest humanitarians.") Even the program's satiric musical number (performed by James Cagney, Groucho Marx, and Keenan Wynn) is more a jab in the ribs than a punch in the mouth. Not once is there an insult or insinuation regarding the personal character of GOP contender Thomas Dewey.
Compare that to the notorious 2004 fundraiser for John Kerry at Radio City Music Hall. The celebrity participants spent the evening trash-talking President Bush so badly that one of them, Whoopi Goldberg, lost a commercial deal for her efforts.
Today, most voters are tired of, rather than impressed by, celebrity endorsements. During the early days of the '08 primaries, John Edwards was greeted with a mixture of boos and cheers when invited onstage during a John Mellencamp concert. It's a safe bet that many in the audience were Democrats, perhaps Edwards supporters themselves. But with today's ticket prices, all concertgoers want to hear is music. The clichéd cry of "Play 'Freebird'!" has been replaced by, "Shut up and sing!"
This hasn't stopped Bruce Springsteen from coming out for Barack Obama. Perhaps looking to evoke some Sinatra-type magic, Springsteen has his own Rat Pack - the E Street Band -- to lend some juice. Yet one of his musical heroes, Bob Dylan, has never publicly endorsed a candidate during his nearly half-century in showbiz.
Some might put this down to Dylan treasuring his privacy. I'd bet, however, that it's more than likely a smart career move. Bruce Springsteen, you see, is a rock legend who's campaigned for at least two losing Democratic presidential candidates (so far). Bob Dylan is a rock legend, period. And that's way cooler than being a failed kingmaker.
By Kevin Kusinitz
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