A look at celebrities, Washington and Al Franken

When Al Franken was sworn in as senator from Minnesota last week, he became one of the few Democrats with a showbiz pedigree to successfully make the jump into elective politics.

His victory was viewed as so unlikely that it inspired talk of a “Franken effect” — a flood of entertainment figures angling for a trip to Washington.

But while stars like Alec Baldwin remain the subject of “what-if?” speculation about a run, don’t expect the floodgates to crash open. Far from inspiring more celebrities to enter the arena, Franken’s example may actually give many pause.

He enters the Senate after a protracted, wrenching battle, with a still-polarized electorate in his home state, and pressure from the start to prove that he’s serious. If his biting jokes are what put him on the public radar, it’s also what’s likely to be missing in his initial months in office. Not a quip was uttered at his swearing-in ceremony or the photo op with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. When Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) called Franken a “clown,” it seemed just ripe for pushback, given Inhofe’s penchant for over-the-top declarations. But Franken didn’t respond in kind. Instead, he embraced him.

It’s not just that Franken’s former persona has been neutered. It’s that his candidacy may have defined the limits of celebrity, something that is becoming all the more apparent in the case of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

His campaign for a bevy of budget-relieving initiatives failed overwhelmingly in May. Now, with California in the midst of a fiscal crisis that has the state handing out IOUs, the Governator’s 2003 campaign — in which he presided over the cinematic crushing of a vehicle to show his opposition to a hike in the motor vehicle tax — seems almost quaint now. If only such a vehicle tax increase were all the state needed to get itself out of its mess.

“Fame will get you attention, but unless it translates into the ability to get politicians of both parties to do what you want, fame turns out to not be enough,” says Martin Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center at USC.

In New Mexico, speculation earlier this year centered on Val Kilmer running for governor, a notion that was taken seriously enough that his would-be chief rival, Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, rushed to secure the endorsement of the state’s IATSE local. But Kilmer in recent weeks has signaled that it’s unlikely he’ll run, and the news that he’s circling a new project, “MacGruber,” was viewed as a further sign he won’t get in the race.

Showbiz figures may be used to attention and scrutiny, but what may surprise them is the intensity of that attention.

“The balance is always to be able to maintain one’s personality and identity, and at the same time realize that you are going to be judged and critiqued from a different lens,” says political consultant Chad Griffin.

Speculation once centered on one of Griffin’s clients, Rob Reiner, as a possible gubernatorial candidate in the Golden State. But lately, Reiner seems to be content with his directing career and working on various campaigns as a private citizen. He recently had success in campaigning against two propositions he said would cut children’s services and mental health care. Schwarzenegger supported both, yet they were defeated.

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