Celebs and politics: An uneasy mix
Among the many reactions last week to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “love child” scandal was one from Sean Walsh, a former gubernatorial aide. “From his Hollywood life, I don’t see this as a surprise,” he told KABC. “Were this to occur when he was governor, I would be shocked.”
That’s not exactly an endorsement of celebrity and politics.
Hollywood certainly has no exclusivity on infidelity, but the Schwarzenegger scandal, and the circumstances involved, may only feed into the stereotypes that are already out there. The advantages of a celebrity making the leap into the political arena — name recognition, visibility, marketing prowess — now don’t look so advantageous.
“I think that the public will probably view the situation as not just solely about Hollywood, because really when you look at it, crisis or scandals involving infidelity have been equal opportunity offenders, involving people in all walks of life,” says Judy Smith, president of crisis communications firm Impact Strategies and former deputy press secretary to President George H.W. Bush. “But this incident will probably add to the public skepticism about entertainers involved in politics.”
Schwarzenegger has his movie career on hold as he deals with the fallout. If he returns, he could very well make a comeback, as the public has a history of forgiving celebrities for their indiscretions. However, it may have been different had he chosen to seek another elective office.The public has a different “litmus test” in “deciding to see a movie and deciding to vote for somebody,” Smith says.
Entertainment figures who run for office not only have to persuade the public that they are serious, but that they should be taken seriously, and it may be an even greater leap to establish that trust after this week.
Donald Trump’s decision not to enter the race for the GOP nomination only gave credence to those who suggested all along that he was dangling the prospect as a publicity ploy or bargaining chip.
Schwarzenegger’s revelation seemed to revive criticism of his gubernatorial legacy — namely, that he was in over his head in his years in Sacramento — even if private scandal and public performance are not directly related.
Last week on his show, screenwriter-turned-MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell connected the two as examples of politicos who try to appeal to the public with “simple-sounding solutions to complex problems.”
Darrell West, VP and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution and the co-author of “Celebrity Politics,” says the public has tended to view celebrity candidates as “white knights who can come from outside the political process and clean things up.” That was true in Schwarzenegger’s case. During the recall campaign in 2003, one of his props was a broom, to show how he’d sweep away Sacramento’s budget travails. There was also the famous campaign event where he used a giant wrecking ball to demolish a car as a metaphor for how he’d cut the state’s vehicle license tax.
“In the past, people tended to focus on the public lives of celebrities and what they could bring to government,” West says. “Now they are going to see if there are private blemishes that might have consequences in public life.”
The question is whether the scandal only magnifies the negative aspects of fame — like the sense of entitlement or a lack of empathy. Schwarzenegger “was an unknown politically, but he had such a following back then that the public gave him much more the benefit of the doubt. But now we find ourselves in such a crisis, people want credentials,” says Mark Young, professor at USC’s Marshall School of Business and co-author with Drew Pinsky of “The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism Is Seducing America.”
What separates this story from other scandals is not just the public figures involved — one that has sent mainstream media and sites like TMZ and RadarOnline into overdrive — but the magnitude of the deceit. Schwarzenegger kept his secret for so long from his wife and family. Political consultant Donna Bojarsky cautions that it’s “one individual with abhorrent behavior.
“I would very much hesitate to jump to a place where this is a ‘Hollywood’ thing. I wouldn’t want the entire entertainment industry to be brushed by Arnold’s bad stroke.”
Moreover, it doesn’t take the Schwarzenegger scandal to make Hollywood a political punching bag. The industry and its excesses have long been favorite talking points, particularly on the right. The exceptions have always been Ronald Reagan and other conservative celebrities, and Schwarzenegger himself before he became a “Republican in Name Only” in the eyes of the GOP.
Far from running on his entertainment background, comedian Al Franken seemed to do to great lengths to distance himself from it when he ran for U.S. Senate in 2008. He emphasized his Minnesota roots, cast himself as wonkish on the issues and avoided even joking that much. Even now, having squeaked by with a win, he keeps a relatively low profile in the national media. Other figures who have expressed a desire to enter the political arena, like Alec Baldwin, may have to contend with past private troubles.
For a recent test of the value of Hollywood cred, turn to entertainment executive Dan Adler’s race for a Los Angeles congressional seat, in a primary that took place on the very day that the Schwarzenegger story broke. Adler enlisted Sean Astin as campaign manager and for Web spots. But that wasn’t enough to overcome well-financed competitors and political pros. According to the latest total, he got 355 votes.