When Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor seven years ago, his election was viewed as something of a novelty — and at least in political circles, a bit of a joke.
“Oh, that’s just crazy, flaky California,” snorted the political press, “picking a catchphrase-spouting actor, the Terminator, to run the state.” For the media, with the late Gary Coleman and a porn star also in the recall race, the circus came to town early.
As Schwarzenegger begins his next chapter, however, it’s telling how much the playbook has changed since his inauguration in terms of the strange, evolving relationship between celebrity and politics — or “celebutics,” for short.
The “Conan the Barbarian” star obviously wasn’t the first actor to make that transition, but the landscape has clearly shifted. As Matt Bai recently wrote in the New York Times, Ronald Reagan “was sort of the Sarah Palin of the day, except that he used celebrity as a catapult into politics and not the other way around.”
Palin has been the foremost practi-tioner in blurring this line — abruptly vacating her office in Alaska to become a Fox News pundit, TLC reality star and author, while daughter Bristol carried the family’s mantle on “Dancing With the Stars.”
Although there’s been plenty of derision (much of it unique to Palin), such appearances have morphed not just into valid choices but shrewd ones — strategic parts of a well-diversified media portfolio.
When Schwarzenegger announced his candidacy on “The Tonight Show” back when Jay Leno first hosted it, using such a frivolous venue as a political springboard was widely ridiculed. Today, sniping about candidates dropping by latenight talkshows sounds so last century, just as tut-tutting about President Obama appearing on a daytime gabfest, “The View,” didn’t gain much traction. (Republicans similarly sought to dismiss Obama during his presidential run as “a celebrity,” which also failed to inflict much damage.)
Indeed, few attributes spur quite as much excitement or speculation inside the Beltway as the warming light of regular media exposure.
Schwarzenegger’s “Predator” co-star, former wrestler Jesse Ventura, preceded him in becoming a governor — and now can be found on TruTV. His fellow Minnesotan, Al Franken, went from “Saturday Night Live” to author, radio host and now U.S. senator.
MSNBC hosts Chris Matthews, Rachel Maddow and Joe Scarborough (a former congressman) have all been forced to deny buzz about possible runs for office, just as Fox News Channel’s Glenn Beck was pressed about his own ambitions after his August rally.
If Beck did go the political route, he’d have plenty of company. The lion’s share of likely Republican presidential candidates have spent their time in exile drawing paychecks from Fox News, reflecting a more intimate relationship between TV commentary and campaigning from the day when Pat Buchanan would periodically leave “Crossfire” to add a little fire-breathing wackiness to the GOP primaries.
If anything, the current revolving door most closely resembles the sports-TV nexus, where coaches quickly take refuge in the broadcast booth while perusing the want ads for their next gig.
So what’s the logical extension of celebutics? With Bravo’s “Real Housewives” prowling red carpets alongside movie stars, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tweeting Lady Gaga about the debate over “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” the sky’s the limit.
It’s not far-fetched to contemplate a future New Jersey governor who started out carousing on “Jersey Shore.” And don’t be surprised to see more established politicians stick their heads in the mouth of the reality-TV lion, recognizing that being underexposed is more perilous than looking undignified.
Trading one-liners with Letterman and Leno will no longer suffice when there are opportunities to waltz in primetime or swap weight-loss tips (a natural for Mike Huckabee or Chris Christie) on “The Biggest Loser.”
As for Schwarzenegger, he will indeed be back — though in his guise as an outspoken, camera-ready former pol, he probably possesses more value at this point to CNN (which could certainly use the muscle) than to corporate sibling Warner Bros.
Admittedly, some may still flinch at the unseemliness of celebrity bleeding into politics. Yet to quote the Bard, the fault really does lie not in our stars (or their campaign advisers) but in ourselves.