Washington has always coveted the glamor of Hollywood, and Hollywood has always wanted to be taken seriously rather than dismissed as mere entertainers. That’s why we have a White House Correspondents’ dinner, and why so many stars wear nerdy eyeglasses. But not too long ago, in a more innocent time, it was shocking when an actor would win an election to high office. The first big-time movie star I know of to do it was George Murphy, whose election as a senator from California in 1965 prompted the great satirist Tom Lehrer to sing:
Hollywood’s always tried to mix
Showbusiness with politics
From Helen Gahagen
To … Ronald Reagan?
But Mr. Murphy is the star
Who’s done the best by far
Oh, gee, it’s great!
At last we’ve got a senator who can—
Really sing and dance!
Can we expect America to stand against her foes
With no one in the Senate who can really tap his toes?
Think of all the musicals we have in store!
Imagine Broadway Melody of nineteen eighty-four!
And now that he’s a senator
He’s really got the chance
To give the country
A song and dance!
Ronald Reagan, of course, was later elected President, though there is no question that he had devoted many years to policy and politics before 1980 and though he had the kind of executive experience (as governor of California) that is one of the traditional pathways to the presidency. Since then, we’ve had figures such as Arnold Schwartzenegger as governor of California, Jessie “the Body” Ventura as governor of Minnesota, Al Franken as senator from Minnesota, Clint Eastwood as mayor of Carmel, Cal. and Sonny Bono as mayor of Palm Springs, Cal. No doubt I am missing some.
After actress, talk show host, and American icon Oprah Winfrey gave a barn-burner of a speech at the Golden Globes award ceremony this week, people immediately began talking about her as a candidate for President in 2020. Now, like everyone else, I like Oprah Winfrey. She’s likeable. And she’s proved to be a canny businesswoman. If you had the choice to invest in Oprah Winfrey, Inc. at the beginning of her career or to invest in Donald Trump, Inc. at the beginning of his career, Oprah would have been the superior choice by a mile. (Owning stock in Donald Trump would have gone badly if for no other reason than his multiple bankruptcies).
But she is no stateswoman. She has not served as a governor, a senator, the Vice President, or a general, which are the traditional routes to the presidency. She seems to me to be entirely unqualified. And that’s nothing to be ashamed of: she has worked hard and excelled in the entertainment industry, but she has done nothing in her life to prepare to hold high office.
The desire to look to a charismatic but unqualified outsider as a savior or a solution to our problems should be familiar to everyone who lived through the 2016 elections. Of course I think a President Winfrey would be superior to a President Trump, mainly because she seems to meet minimum standards of character and temperament that President Trump does not. But we need to find a way to get back to a world in which we look to people who have the basic qualifications for the office they seek to hold.
I’m not saying we can only elect soulless, boring technocrats. We want authenticity in our politicans. But we have to make sure that we know real authenticity when we see it.
One of my favorite books on style, Clear and Simple as the Truth, has this anecdote about Senator Fulbright:
Senator Fulbright was a Rhodes scholar with an Oxford education. Before he went to the Senate, he had been the dean of a law school and the president of a university. His background was perfectly congruent with what he sounded like in action as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee conducting hearings on the Vietnam War, but when he campaigned in rural Arkansas, where he got his votes, there was no hint of Oxford, or even Fayetteville. On the stump, he sounded completely down home. After the election, that sound dissipated with every mile he got closer to Washington until he was sworn in for a new term and resumed both the seat of power and the music of policy.
So we see that politicians with deep experience, knowledge, and gravitas can still be appealing popular politicians, or at least they could in the past. Today, Senator Fulbright would no doubt be condemned as inauthentic, but that condemnation would miss the mark. He was a complicated man of many parts. President Obama was in a way like Senator Fulbright—a man of many parts, but with the unique advantage that his popular persona—cool and sophisticated—was not that different from the persona of a boring technocrat. Thus he was able to avoid the charge of inauthenticity in a way that Hillary Clinton wasn’t. Part of President Trump’s appeal to his base is that he is not a man of many parts. He is exactly what he appears to be—all Fayetteville (or rather, all Queens), no Oxford.
Actors have a unique advantage: they can seem to have the gravitas and erudition of a Senator Fulbright, but then, they’re actors. I have no doubt that Oprah Winfrey could have a presidential demeanor. Perhaps Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson could have one, too, though I don’t really want to do an experiment to find out.
Instead, what I want is for us to have the maturity not to get stars in our eyes when we contemplate our favorite entertainers as political leaders. I wouldn’t hire Oprah Winfrey to take out my appendix; I wouldn’t ask her to represent me in a lawsuit; I wouldn’t commission her to write an opera; I wouldn’t seek her advice on a scientific question. I would want someone with the right experience and skill to do these things. The same is true in politics. We used to understand this. I hope we can understand it again.