"Buffalo Bill was the biggest celebrity in America at the time, and Roosevelt did all he could to become Bill" to get votes, Brinkley says. "Those presidents who continue to have luster, like JFK and Reagan, all have lingering appeal because they recognized how important celebrity is. "
But politics-merged-with-celebrity is no big deal, says presidential historian Stephen Hess, also of Brookings. It's insulting to suggest that voters don't know the difference between, say, voting for president and voting on American Idol, Hess scoffs.
"You'd have to show me actual evidence that people are voting for unqualified candidates just because they are 'celebrities,' " he says. "The American people can sort this out pretty well."
Indeed, an argument can be made that using the mechanics of celebrityhood to attract voters' attention is a good thing; democracy is about all the demos — the people — and not just political junkies.
"It's easy to distract people with entertainment because people are more interested in entertainment than politics," West says. "But it's not good if it drains substance out of the process. When you get Paris Hilton in campaign ads, you know you're in" silly territory.
Celebrity can be a mixed blessing for the candidates, as well, summed up by the aphorism: Live by tabloid, die by tabloid.
The good thing about your face plastered on scores of magazine and tabloid covers is that you reach more voters than you might otherwise. The bad thing is that some tabloids also want to take you down — dissecting your marriage, your parenting, your pastor, your love life and all those pesky details about cut-rate land deals and bridges to nowhere that you think are out of bounds.
Politicians "want the upside of celebrityhood without any of the intrusiveness, and that's impossible," West says.
Lindsay Lohan could attest to that. She felt it necessary to advise Palin about how to behave (yes, the irony is head-snapping) via her MySpace blog: "Hint Hint, Pali Pal — Don't pose for anymore tabloid covers, you're not a celebrity, you're running for office to represent our, your, my COUNTRY!"
Courtney E. Martin, 28, author and columnist for The American Prospect magazine, says many young people tend to see politicians as just another kind of celebrity, albeit in bad clothes. She blames the decline in civic education, which leaves them ill-equipped to understand issues or identify falsehoods. "But the media are feeding us what we ask for — I don't see a lot of letters to the editor demanding more policy coverage" instead of celebrity coverage, she says.
Peter Levine, a scholar of civic learning at Tufts University in Boston who blogs about politics and celebrity, says that when candidates do something policy-related, it doesn't get as much attention as, say, an argument over lipstick on a pig. "One interpretation is that this is not the candidates' fault because substantive stuff does not pay," Levine says. "Lipstick got more attention than McCain's education plan. There are big incentives for politicians to act like celebrities, but it's bad for our politics."