Between Hollywood and Washington

Ritchie Between Two Ferns

By Natalie Ritchie.

Last week, President Obama appeared on Zack Galifianakis’ “Between Two Ferns” to promote the Affordable Care Act to young Americans.

Bill O’Reilly slammed the president for neglecting his presidential duties and tarnishing the office’s reputation. O’Reilly concluded his tirade saying, “All I can tell you is Abe Lincoln would not have done it,” implying Lincoln would have been above such an unprofessional and undignified ploy

According to The Atlantic, however, one of Lincoln’s contemporaries once complained, “There is a strong feeling among those who have seen Mr. Lincoln, in the way of business, that he lacks practical talent for his important place. It is thought that there should be more readiness, and also more capacity, for government.”

These observations seem ridiculous in hindsight—Lincoln was responsible for one of the greatest acts of governance in U.S. history—yet they also mirror O’Reilly’s critiques of President Obama. Evidently, a disregard for one critic’s standard of propriety does not necessarily indicate political incompetence. In an age of social media with an approaching sign-up deadline, Lincoln very well might have been in the chair across from Galifianakis.

Politicians often use celebrity connections to advance their causes or themselves, and celebrities often enter the political sphere for the same reasons. Stephen Colbert has testified before Congress about conditions for immigrant farm laborers, and Jaden Pinkett Smith did the same before the Senate about human trafficking. Just several weeks ago, Ben Affleck testified before the Senate about the Democratic Republic of Congo. In fact, Affleck was even rumored to be running for Congress at one point last year.

 Of course, he wouldn’t have been the first celebrity to cross over into politics. Aside from the obvious examples such as Ronald Reagan or Arnold Schwarzenegger, countless actors, musicians, and athletes have taken political offices.

The line between politics and celebrity often blurs simply due to the nature of each—at the most basic level, both function like popularity contests where success depends on winning the favor of the American people.

Yet sometimes this common element can obscure the important differences between the two. While success in either field depends on winning popularity, the qualifications for artistic or athletic renown differ greatly from those for political power. For example, whether or not Sarah Palin was qualified for office, it is safe to say that her political achievements did not translate into reality TV show success.

On the other hand, when The West Wing was coming to an end after seven seasons, Martin Sheen, who played President Bartlet, was asked to run for office. He declined, commenting that people often confuse celebrity for credibility. Instead, after completing the show he chose to finally get a college degree.

Other subjects are harder to place firmly into one category. Russell Brand, for instance, won international attention after his Newsnight interview went viral and he began writing articles for The Guardian. Opinions were divided over the legitimacy of his theories, but they were seriously discussed, and that’s saying something for a man primarily known for his antics in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” or “Get Him to the Greek.” 

There is no doubt that Brand is incredibly intelligent. The same is true for Stephen Colbert or even Martin Sheen, each in his own way. The more important question is if their particular brand of intelligence is right for politics, which requires both a keen understanding of the policies and how to manipulate the system in order to implement them.

Career politicians are not necessarily better at this than individuals with more unconventional backgrounds. Nor is political office the only way to affect policy changes. Colbert might be more effective as a comedian than he ever would be as a congressman, but his celebrity status alone should in no way disqualify him from being a credible candidate.

In fact, the same holds true for President Obama. During the 2008 election, he was compared to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton and criticized for being “the biggest celebrity of the world.” His popular appeal was treated as a weakness or liability, although it remains one of his greatest strengths. Criticize President Obama for his policies or his partisanship, not for his fame.

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