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American Idols

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. Web issue image [1]

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.

15 Comments (Open | Close)

15 Comments To "American Idols"

#1 Comment By spite On August 7, 2014 @ 8:19 am

I don’t know who said it, but he said that the three branches of the US government are Hollywood, Wall Street and the Military Industry.

#2 Comment By Derek Leaberry On August 7, 2014 @ 10:54 am

The 1965 Immigration Act has had much more to do with the prevailing Democratic presidential dominance than Hollywood. Like most political money, Hollywood money is easy come, easy go. What effect Hollywood does have on politics is on the forming of the attitudes of youth and what Rush Limbaugh calls the low-information voter. Still, the importing of tens of millions of Third World immigrants has altered the political landscape to a much greater degree than the stranglehold of Hollywood on popular culture.

#3 Comment By The Dean On August 7, 2014 @ 11:12 am

Well written Mr. O’Malley, well written indeed. I remember an interview on the old Firing Line show with William F. Buckley when he was interviewing Malcolm Muggeridge. Paraphrased:–Television is the greatest distortion of reality known to man…in a movie where there is a murder and there are three suspects, a heroin addict, a mob figure or a Catholic priest, at the end of the hour you will find that the Catholic priest is the perpetrator….

#4 Comment By EliteCommInc. On August 7, 2014 @ 11:25 am

I will have to think through most of this, but it seems a stretch.

My intitial response here is to defend Mr. Eastwood’s performance, reflective of an after dinner speech or desert speech and what might called in some circles performance art argument. Though performance art is generally associated with less concrete subjects, I think it fits nicely.

I fully got Mr. Eastwood’s point and the humor as well. It was funny and even poignant. He touched every issue which now plagues the WH team. A sense of timidity, lack of resolve, distance/disconnect, the embodiment of everything they ran against and incompetence. No doubt a frustrated democratic constituency gets it now if they didn’t then.

As for the rest, there are so many shallow pools its hard to know where to begin. The cowboy motif did not get it’s embrace in the 1970’s. And it probably goes back as far as Daniel Boone, the lone frontiersman making his way in the ‘wild’ outback of the country. It is not a contemporary political staple — it is endemic in American psyche – foundational. I think a deeper timeline would reveal as much.

As for Mr. Little, he has Daniel Boone written all over him. Standing alone, against establishment, even his own. Following his conscience. And Hollywood never embraced him – never, until after Spike Lee’s film proved worthy by box office dollars. Not even the current executive embraces Malcolm X. Council Milk has the dubious distinction for having been shot, not because of his chosen form of expression, but because his opponents loss. He just happened to be a practicing homosexual. Aside from that in SF, Council Milk, embodied the standard liberal fair one expects in SF — very establishment. He wasn’t embrace by Hollywood either.

But I am ahead of myself. I leave with this, if I had to measure Hollywood against current events, notably the last elections, national financial crisis and military interventions beat Hollywood by several miles on the American public influence meter.

But some more thought on the matter is required before responding further.

#5 Comment By Sean Scallon On August 7, 2014 @ 11:52 am

Actually, it’s one of the oldest equations in governance: art + politics = power.

#6 Comment By ThomasH On August 7, 2014 @ 1:11 pm

Even leaving aside Eastwood, I find Conservatives much more interested in the politics of Media personalities than Liberals and exaggerate their importance. Try to talk to a Conservative about a carbon tax and in five minutes he’ll (usually it IS a he) bring up Al Gore. Gun safety regulations and you’ll get a plot summary of Red Dawn. And no liberal entertainer has the influence with liberals as Limbaugh and O’Reilly have with conservatives. My theory is that they imagine liberals are as influenced by liberal media figures as conservatives are by conservative figures.

#7 Comment By Viking On August 7, 2014 @ 5:00 pm

Just one comment: I think listing JFK and RR as the most glamorous US Presidents of the 20th century should be changed to second half of the century. Previous generations were quite taken by the two Roosevelts.

#8 Comment By Clint On August 7, 2014 @ 6:35 pm

Liberal dominated Hollywood,like a liberal dominated media have primarily indoctrinated their consumers with a liberal agenda.

#9 Comment By EliteCommInc. On August 8, 2014 @ 5:27 am

Hollywood, is a better influencer of party politics by the films it produces. Certainly celebrities have recognition ad no doubt dollars, which may count even larger than events or celebrities. Ms. Jane Fonda sitting in the eat of a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun did not do LBJ any favors. The assassination of three major youth icons: Pres. Kennedy, Dr./Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Candidate Bobby Kennedy. Created such deep psychological scars on those generations, until this moment I myself must take a step back and shudder at the utter betrayal those youth must have experienced not by government, but life itself. and unlike the films of the thirties and twenties which acted as a kind of salve for the wounds of the depression and the dust bowl the films of that period fueled the distrust of power structure and a again life. Now perhaps that dynamic is included in the book and jus goes unreferenced.

What celebrity has today perhaps, more than any other time in history is the power to make movies which operate as huge advertisements and propaganda for parties and candidates. The end of the old studio system in which a few dictated what got produced and how. Today, actors are more of the process by virtue of their celebrity and wealth and influence. The sheer volume of outlets for celebrity produced political propaganda shatters anything that existed prior to the 1960’s when the independent producer was starting to take flight and now is in full swing via of the internet. The other huge factor that has shifted wit respect to celebrity is the almost seamless meld of media generators – movies, and TV, Music and News have become an almost singular voice on several issues.

Now no doubt that celebrity today has more direct impact on a candidates success than at any time in the past (in my view), still that also depends on the relationship or influence that any particular celebrity has with a constituency and the interconnected networks that a celebrity has within certain networks. Which may be tougher to codify. Absolutely important to name recognition. Another interesting meld of celebrity influence is the cause to candidate. Celebrities are linked to causes or social concerns in which candidate association may be considered vital to an election, such that seeking out a celebrity is linking to a particular cause which has a ready made voting block.

I think the book sounds like a thought provoking foray into celebrity and politics. For example, Ronald Reagan’s election to Governor and then the executive, and the role of his own celebrity and those of his Hollywood peers would be interesting.

I do appreciated this article, it evoked more in me on the subject, than I would have anticipated. I have my Hollywood favorites, and many them like George Clooney take their politics seriously (in my view) but on most issues the divergence is stark, I am often at odds with them. Love Ms. Helen Mirren, but is as tolerant of me on the issues beyond her film career. Given the slash and burn politics that is going on, when it comes to most celebrities, I feel that everything is at stake if one opposes them. They want my assent or my head, and for those of meddling with the “Gods” that may be a risky challenge.

#10 Comment By Jude On August 8, 2014 @ 2:01 pm

What effect Hollywood does have on politics is on the forming of the attitudes of youth and what Rush Limbaugh calls the low-information voter.

When did Rush become a source of “high” information?

#11 Comment By Jude On August 8, 2014 @ 2:04 pm

Liberal dominated Hollywood,like a liberal dominated media have primarily indoctrinated their consumers with a liberal agenda.

And some believe Russians are paranoid?

#12 Comment By Clint On August 8, 2014 @ 6:23 pm

Gallup Polls on Media Bias :
“In September 2013, three times as many Americans said that the media are too liberal (46%) than said the media are too conservative (13%)”

#13 Comment By Sud1 On August 11, 2014 @ 2:23 pm

Right concept, wrong capital. It was the cooperation between Hollywood and Moscow that revolutionized politics.

#14 Comment By EliteCommInc. On August 11, 2014 @ 7:04 pm

“And some believe Russians are paranoid?”

One may or may not be paranoid. I am not sure that response challenges the view. I would add that Hollywood is overwhelmingly liberal.

And it makes sense, especially today. An actor explores a myriad of emotional and intellectual concepts that require ventures into the psyche in which they dwell for extended periods of time.

I would bet it’s a tough road to come out of these endeavours unscathed. A look at the pop music culture best lays this out publically. Take for example Miley Cyrus or Brittany Spears who heralded their virginity despite their music. Without outside support to shore up one’s moorings, it makes sense that it will give way. Lenny Kravitz, whose venture into celibacy – good for him — was hard pressed without support. And ten to exist in a world in which it is applauded and or accepted —

Nicole Kidman’s refusal to use the n’ word, for respect of her children, seemed odd to a Hollywood who has been preview to some of the most intense erotic scenes in R rated films. To ride against the tide in Hollywood has got to be a very hard slog, a hard slog indeed. Liberality is almost required. There are some neat films about ‘virtue’. But I suspect there’s more money in making films that reflect the fall in the mind of Hollywood. Film as with life seems more fully experienced liberally.

So I can understand the view. And then there’s this. People, including actors, who are paid to explore their unknowns some of which are dark and sully places of mind and soul, my find it hard to return from some act and like most of us might be more inclined to justify it.

But Christ has certainly provided some deep wells for our entertainment. Said with a mixture of envy and caution.

#15 Comment By Michael in NYC On August 17, 2014 @ 2:14 pm

A very bery dubious construct. However, it may for a lively dinner time topic, if nothing else.