Celebrity Influences Political Votes

Sept. 30, 2003 -- In California, political tongues are wagging about a celebrity running for statewide office — but it isn't Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Rather, it's acerbic comedian Dennis Miller, who introduced Schwarzenegger at his post-debate rally last week and has been traveling the state with his gubernatorial campaign.

Impressed with his rhetorical skills and star power, Republican officials are reportedly trying to get Miller to consider a run.

Stars running for office is almost a fad.

"They bring high name identification, they can attract media coverage, and they have the ability to raise a lot of money," says Darrell West, a professor at Brown University and author of Celebrity Politics. "That makes them perfect candidates."

If Miller runs — and wins — he would join a pantheon that includes: former Gov. Jesse "The Body" Ventura, I-Minn.; former mayor of Carmel, Calif., Republican Clint Eastwood; former Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., currently seen as the district attorney on NBC's Law & Order; and Reps. Sonny Bono, R-Calif.; Ben Jones, a Georgia Democrat who played "Cooter" on The Dukes of Hazard; and Fred Grandy, an Iowa Republican who portrayed "Gopher" on The Love Boat.

What's going on here?

A blurring of the line between Hollywood and Washington, West says, and he's not just talking about the disconcerting HBO series K Street that blends actors with real-life political players.

"Many of the skills that celebrities have are exactly the skills you need to do very well," West observes. "Looking good in front of a TV camera is important in Hollywood, and today it's important in political campaigns." With political parties weakened, the modern quest for office is a media-based affair. "Particularly in large states," West adds. "If you can't put a good ad together and look good in a TV debate you're not going to go very far as a political candidate."

Former B-movie actor Ronald Reagan — now known as The Great Communicator and worshipped by conservatives — set the standard for what entertainers can bring to the process. That said, former actors in particular always stand the risk of being seen as living in fantasy worlds.

On Monday, for instance, Gov. Gray Davis brought up the differences between himself and Schwarzenegger when it comes to their experience with war.

"I was in a real war, not a movie war," Davis said. "A real war in Vietnam and I was proud to defend my country."

Celebrity certainly doesn't guarantee victory; less likely gubernatorial candidates include diminutive Gary Coleman formerly of Diff'rent Strokes, and lame prop comedian Gallagher. And the announcement by Kelsey Grammer, NBC's Frasier, that he was considering a run for office generated nothing but the soft sound of chirping crickets.

Then there's the sad saga of Nancy Kulp, "Miss Hathaway" from The Beverly Hillbillies, who ran for Congress as a Pennsylvania Democrat in 1984. Kulp's Republican opponent, Rep. Bud Shuster, enlisted Buddy Ebsen — who starred as Jed Clampett on the show — to cut a radio ad against her, which said: "I dropped her a note to say, 'Hey, Nancy — I love you dearly but you're too liberal for me. I've got to go with Bud Shuster.'"

She lost in a landslide. Live by celebrity, die by celebrity.