Celebrity Government: Show Business for Ugly People

Politics, it has been said for a while now, is “show business for ugly people.”  (The line is said to have originated with either Paul Begala, or Texas political consultant Bill Miller, in a 1991 Dallas Morning News article.)  Actually, the ugly part is less and less true; it is slowly becoming a requirement in politics as in Hollywood that you be good looking to succeed.

With the appearance at the Oscars last night of First Lady Michelle Obama announcing the best picture statue, the gradual convergence of Hollywood and Washington is complete.  These two citadels of power and wealth have a lot in common, starting with a sense of unreality—the idea that they can create “reality” simply by exercising their will and imagination.

The list of parallels is now quite lengthy:

—Hollywood has the Academy Awards, with prestige attending to which “after awards” party you can get into, like Vanity Fair, or in the old days Swifty Lazar’s famous annual party.  Washington has the White House Correspondents Dinner (complete with awards), and cachet attaches to which table you are invited to and which after-dinner party you can get invited to (Vanity Fair magazine again). Hollywood celebrities often turn up at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, and politicians sometimes turn up at the Academy Awards.

—The fate of legislative proposals in Congressional committees is identical to what happens to movie script ideas in Hollywood—most never see the light of day.  Those that do get through are chopped up and rearranged, often in the dead of night by anonymous people, and usually differ significantly from the original idea when they finally see the light of day.  Movies are often determined by formula (is this a male-oriented “action” picture, or is this a women-oriented romantic comedy or “woman-in-jeap” flick?  What audience will this picture appeal to most?)  In Washington, legislation often follows a formula—can we attach a tax break or earmark to this bill for a special interest?  Which interest or voting block will like and dislike this law?

And the Beltway Oscar for best imitation of a statesman goes to. . .

—Elected officials and actors come in distinct classes: Movie actors are more highly esteemed than TV actors; Senators are more highly esteemed than House members. Politicians and actors have similarly outsized egos, and are increasingly insulated from contact with the public through means of a large personal staff to take care of their everyday needs.  Politicians increasingly demand—and receive—privileged treatment typical of what Hollywood stars receive (private planes, special hotel rooms, security, special meals, etc.).  Politicians are the only class of people beside actors in the habit of sending out autographed photos.

—Both towns are virtually immune from the normal economic cycle.  When recessions come, people still go to the movies, and tax money still flows into Washington (and if it doesn’t, Washington simply borrows the money).  Result: Neither town suffers much fluctuation in employment, and neither shares in whatever distress is happening in America’s heartland.

—I used to say that Hollywood producers—the key figures behind the scenes who make things happen—have a close Washington analogue: political consultants, who “produce” campaign and issue strategies for the office holders.  (In fact, some political consultants transplanted to Hollywood to make “The West Wing” back in the 1990s.)  Hollywood has sets, sound stages, and thousands of “extras” to fill up movie scenes; Washington has legions of bureaucrats as “extras” to fill up the political dramas, and magnificent classical facades on its buildings as “sets.”  And then I came across this George Clooney comment to Fade In magazine in the fall 2005:

“Washington is so similar to Hollywood; they’re mirror images of each other. They’re the only one-industry towns that I’ve ever seen in my life.  You get in a cab in LA you’ll have a driver who barely speaks English, talking about last-might’s box office numbers, and if you get into a cab in Washington, you’ll have a driver who barely speaks English, talking about the energy bill; you go into a bar in Washington, and instead of some B-actor that walks in, it’s a congressman.  All the lobbyists are like actors.  The props are big and made of marble.  But there are real similarities between those two towns.  It’s intoxicating and infuriating.”

The trouble with a culture of celebrity is that it breeds insularity.  Just as Hollywood provides a very partial and distorted reflection of the real world in the entertainment it produces, so too a celebrity-obsessed Washington is increasingly distant from the perceptions and concerns of ordinary Americans who never come to Washington except as tourists.  The culture of celebrity government isn’t good.