It was August 2012 at the Republican Convention in Tampa, Florida. Just before Mitt Romney’s prime speech, a surprise guest arrived to woo enthusiastic supporters. To their astonishment, it was the Hollywood legend Clint Eastwood. But what was supposed to be the rabble-rousing climax of the entire convention turned into a national embarrassment.
Eastwood began talking to an empty chair that he put beside him on stage. The joke—that nobody but Clint seemed to get—was that the chair was supposed to symbolize Barack Obama. At one point during the 15-minute debacle the entire convention hall fell silent. All that could be heard was the sound of air conditioners humming. Then, breaking the silence, Eastwood turned to his imaginary friend and said: “What, you want me to tell Romney? I can’t do that. He can’t do that to himself. You’re absolutely crazy.”
The reaction from the audience was a curious mix of mass embarrassment and frenzy. The Hollywood legend began to resemble a lost old man suffering from amnesia. Apart from a few comments about high unemployment, politics barely came into a speech that was completely unscripted. Finally running out of steam, Eastwood ended by quoting his classic cliché: “make my day.” It was what the crowd needed after such a strange experience. Everyone clapped him off stage and got ready for Romney to make the closing speech.
In the introduction to his new book, Citizen Hollywood, British historian and journalist Timothy Stanley points out that this extraordinary episode signifies something far greater than just a mismanaged public relations stunt. The spectacle of a Hollywood star at a national political event has become so normal now that nobody bats an eyelid unless his behavior is as bizarre as Eastwood’s. Not only are stars influencing politics, Stanley argues, they’re actually deciding who wins elections.
He refers to the 2012 contest as the most “Hollywood-influenced in history.” If Republicans got Clint Eastwood, Democrats got Kal Penn: a young Indian-American actor who embodied youth, coolness, and multiculturalism. In Stanley’s view, American elections no longer come down to issues like abortion, big government, taxes, or being for or against another costly war. Really, he argues, it all depends on what Hollywood hero you choose as your symbol.
Not only does endorsing a Hollywood mythology win you votes. It also deepens your pockets. Stanley cites Obama’s courting of Hollywood liberals with gay marriage as a typical example. In May 2012 Obama still wasn’t fully supportive of same-sex marriage. But seeing that it would win him friends from members of the Hollywood community who had plenty of cash, he came around. Within 90 minutes of endorsing same-sex marriage, Obama’s campaign had taken in over $1 million.
The following day, Obama flew to George Clooney’s house in California for a fundraiser. Stars paid a whopping $40,000 apiece to attend. The lesson here, Stanley claims, is simple: when it comes to political hot potatoes, American politicians tend to follow the money. And for Democrats, it often resides in Tinseltown.
Just how much truth is there to Stanley’s thesis? I think his contention that the 2012 election was decided by a Hollywood elite is slightly reductive and hyperbolic—it aims to fit the argument of his book rather than the reality of the situation. Still, Stanley explores certain issues with intellectual authority. For example, his examination of myth and political ideology is particularly fascinating. He claims that conservatives since the 1970s have adopted the myth of the Cowboy, which tends to embody characteristics such as honor, masculinity, faith in God, resistance to authority, guns, self-reliance, and the common man made heroic.
Think of how many times you saw Ronald Reagan photographed riding a horse at his ranch, usually wearing a cowboy hat and jeans. Even the casual language of George W. Bush in various press conferences during his presidency played to this stereotype of the outlaw cowboy. And in Richard Nixon’s time in office he had the unfailing support of the greatest Hollywood cowboy of all time, John Wayne, who on occasion even stayed over at the White House.
The Western myth also embodies a very conservative idea: the establishment of social order and political authority from a paternal figure. But Stanley argues that the cowboy symbol is a dated concept that has become the Republican Party’s straitjacket. I think he may be on the money here.
Although liberals haven’t cemented their image as firmly in one single myth, their Hollywood heroes, Stanley explains, tend to be idealists ready to go it alone. Think of movies like “Milk” and “Malcolm X”: both tell the stories of outsiders and minorities who are able to bring about social change through sheer determination and individual will power.
Stanley then spends considerable time discussing the two most glamorous presidents of the 20th century: John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. We read about how Kennedy went out to Hollywood in the mid 1940s—on instruction from his father Joe—to learn the ropes of show business. Kennedy père felt this would perfect his son’s public image when his time came to shine on the national stage.
For JFK—who came to power when television was becoming the dominant medium—appearance and style were just as important as political form and content. And this method of making power and image compatible not only worked, it set the benchmark for how American presidents should present themselves in public ever after.
Similarly, Ronald Reagan spent his life as an actor in Hollywood training to be U.S. president. When he finally entered the White House in 1981, he intertwined his own celebrity profile with the presidency. He even called one of his weapons programs “Star Wars” after the George Lucas movie. Recall also his re-election campaign’s famous catchphrase, “It’s morning again in America.” Such things have the feel of a Hollywood screenplay.
But if Stanley touches on a crucial subject here, I feel he only skims the surface of something that should be explored with more detailed analysis. He seems to think that being a continual soap opera is something unique to the American political system. I would go further and argue that such a system of governance has evolved from the West’s uncompromising belief in the escapist fictions of late capitalism, which developed through the rise of consumerism and mass media in the latter half of the 20th century.
As I was reading Stanley’s book, I couldn’t help thinking of the late British novelist J.G. Ballard, who saw this fusing of politics and mass entertainment as something that was inevitable from the way capitalism had evolved after the Second World War. In 1968 a journalist asked Ballard why he was using real people in his novels, such as Elizabeth Taylor and JFK. His answer is worth quoting:
I feel that the 1960s represent a marked turning point. … for the first time the outside world, so-called reality, is now almost completely a fiction. It’s a media landscape, if you like. It’s almost completely dominated by advertising, TV, mass-merchandising, politics conducted as advertising. People’s lives, even their individual private lives, are getting more and more controlled by what I call fiction. … The greatest fictional characters of the twentieth century are people like the Kennedys.
Just one year before this interview Ballard wrote a story that predicted that the governor of California would one day become president of the United States. Ballard could see with clarity back in the late 1960s what Stanley almost stumbles upon, which is this: following Kennedy’s death, reality and fiction became inseparable in Western culture.
As more citizens viewed everyday life through television screens, figures like Kennedy, Reagan, and Bill Clinton were living out voters’ psychopathologies in a public fantasy. Think of Kennedy’s last moments in Dallas, or Reagan standing at the Berlin Wall calling for the end of the Cold War, or Clinton’s assignation with Monica Lewinsky in the Oval Office. The drama of such events is of more importance to ordinary people than the daily bureaucratic drags of checks and balances.
In the concluding chapter, Stanley says he hopes somehow voters will see through this superficiality. He calls for a return to a more noble and traditional politics, where the Constitution, reason, and compassion replace nice haircuts, pretentious smiles, and dinners with movie stars at $40 grand a head.
While I share his sentiment, it may be wishful thinking. In our consumer-driven society, where everyday lives are viewed through a culture of postmodern irony and where exaggerated fictional lives are played out on social-networking sites, the average voter actually prefers a non-stop screenplay. People don’t want to deal with serious political issues. They want good-looking celebrities to distract them from their existential predicament.
Stanley’s book aims to look at the relationship between Washington and Hollywood in terms of money. But I think the distorted lines between politics and reality, have, over time, become stranger than fiction. This is a subject he neglects, despite his best intentions.
Perhaps it’s wise to leave the last word to one of the most eloquent conservatives of the last century. T.S. Eliot kept it short and sweet, pointing out in Four Quartets that quite simply, “human kind cannot bear very much reality.”
J.P. O’Malley is an Irish writer living in London.