Politics was riddled with celebrities long before Trump

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Helen Gahagan Douglas addressing the World Youth Gathering in New York, March 21, 1945.
Photo-Illustration: Intelligence; Photo: Everett / Shutterstock

Could there really be something new under the sun in American politics? “Celebrities are America’s new politicians,” proclaimed an Axios headline published this week. The room Explain:

Launching candidacies for the post of governor, making presidential endorsements, founding schools: celebrities are increasingly involved in American public and political life …

As we reported, politics is no longer the purview of career politicians, as companies and their CEOs put all their weight into influencing policy. Now movie stars, famous musicians and professional athletes are also using their influence in politics.

It has often been claimed that the election of Donald Trump for the presidency abolished all the preconditions for a high-level political candidacy. But are we really starting to see the results of this “paradigm shift,” as Axios suggests? Some of the examples offered fade a bit on examination. Yes, Caitlyn Jenner took part in the recent California Governors Recall Contest. She also finished in 13th place with one percent of the vote, and even that is inflated since a large number of voters completely ignored the replacement contest.

There is a rich history of celebrities running for office – and winning – long before Trump, but apparently they aren’t much of a factor in this current trend. Axios brings up Ronald Reagan only to dismiss him as irrelevant because he had held an inferior position before becoming president (although I would say being elected governor of California without any prior government service was quite important). Arnold Schwarzenegger is cited as a caveat to celebrities with no political experience, as he was widely criticized while he was governor of California (although he did manage to get re-elected by a landslide). While it is remarkable that Matthew McConaughey strength Texas gubernatorial candidate in 2022, he is perhaps even more remarkable than ex-wrestler Jesse “the Body” Ventura made be elected governor of Minnesota in 1998, a decade before the same state elected television star and comedian Al Franken to the US Senate?

Stars who try to influence politics without entering the arena themselves strike me even more disappointing. Maybe that’s because I’m old enough to remember the older generations of celebrity support for politicians, including the Rat Pack’s famous affinity for Richard Nixon and the host of entertainment and sports figures associated with the Kennedys. . The celebrity factor was pretty hard to miss when former great footballer Roosevelt Greer, Olympic gold medalist Rafer Johnson and writers George Plimpton, Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill wrestled Sirhan Sirhan to the ground after shooting RFK, then the Singer and TV star Andy Williams caused a stir by singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” at Bobby’s funeral.

But the trend of stars turned political predates the 1960s. You could even say that it is one of the oldest trends in American politics, if we consider George Washington and the nine fellow generals who have worked for him. succeeded to the presidency of the “celebrities”. Here are some of the personalities who rose to fame in other fields and then turned it into political capital long before Trump traded reality TV sets for the Oval Office.

Reagan and Schwarzenegger actually had many predecessors in California politics who were the early players. In 1964, Tinseltown star George Murphy was elected to the US Senate by the Golden State (he held it for one term before losing to John Tunney, son of famous boxer Gene Tunney, who in turn lost to SI Hayakawa, who was a simple college administrator when he became a celebrity by harshly suppressing a student strike).

In the 1940s, Broadway and Hollywood actress Helen Gahagan Douglas was elected to Congress from California and was the 1950 Democratic candidate against Richard Nixon in what has become one of the most famous (and vicious) US Senate races of all time. Douglas, in fact, pioneered the apt nickname “Tricky Dick” for the future president. She would also have had a long standing affair with Lyndon B. Johnson, although it could be just celebrity gossip.

And Shirley Temple, perhaps the most famous child actor of all time, entered politics as an adult. As Shirley Temple Black, she ran for Congress in California in 1967 and went on to hold several diplomatic posts.

Outside of California, Hollywood actor John Davis Lodge was elected to Congress from Connecticut in 1946, then elected governor in 1950; he then served as the United States’ Ambassador to Spain. Television actor Fred Grandy served four terms as a congressman from Iowa. And while he began his career as a member of the Senate and lobbyist, Fred Thompson was much better known as an actor when he was elected to the US Senate from Tennessee in 1994.

Jimmie Davis, a country and gospel singer best known for “You Are My Sunshine,” was first elected governor of Louisiana in 1944, then returned to office in 1960 as a reactionary civil rights opponent. .

Next door in Texas, another legendary reactionary, W. Lee (“Pass the cookies, Pappy”) O’Daniel, was elected governor in 1939 and United States Senator in 1941 (beating LBJ in this contest) after rising to fame as a country music conductor and radio huckster for the Hillbilly Flour Company.

And back in California, Sonny Bono (of Sonny & Cher fame) was elected to two terms in Congress before being killed in a skiing accident.

One of the most interesting contemporary examples of a celebrity leaping into electoral politics is the probable New York candidacy. Times Columnist Nicholas Kristof for Governor of Oregon next year. But he is not the first famous journalist or author to run for high office. If the Douglas-Nixon contest was the nastiest in California history, the second nastiest was certainly the Race for governor of 1934 between devastating author and journalist Upton Sinclair (a longtime socialist who presents himself as Democrat) and Republican pol Frank Merriam. The latter won after huge negative attacks on Sinclair as a non-American which was funded and produced by Hollywood studios and Hearst newspapers.

It is noteworthy that Merriam himself began his career as a newspaper editor. Likewise, of course, the founder of the Hearst company William Randolph Hearst (the Charles Foster Kane model of Orson Welles in Citizen Kane), a powerful figure in California and national politics for decades and, for a time, a serious contender for the presidency (especially in 1904). And a little distinguished American president, Warren G. Harding, was also editor and publisher of a local newspaper before officially entering politics.

President Theodore Roosevelt was a published author of a military history book before entering politics and government, though he was probably not rightly a “celebrity” so early on. One of the strangest and shortest political careers was led by controversial novelist and playwright Gore Vidal, who led a serious campaign for Congress in New York in 1960 and then a pipe race against Jerry Brown for the nomination. to the Democratic California Senate in the United States in 1982. Vidal later played a United States Senator in the United States. political satire film Bob roberts.

Caitlyn Jenner isn’t the first celebrity ex-athlete to enter politics. In fact, she isn’t even the first Republican Olympic gold medal decathlete to step into California politics. Bob Matthias, who won gold at the Decathlonn twice (1948 and 1952), later four terms in Congress representing the north San Joaquin Valley.

Other Olympians who served in Congress include Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado (judo) and Reps Ralph Metcalfe of Illinois and Jim Ryun of Kansas (both on track).

Super baseball Jim bunning served a term in the United States Senate representing Kentucky. Football was represented by Hall of Fame coach Tom osborne (a congressman from Nebraska), NFL wide receiver Steve Largent (a congressman from Oklahoma) and NFL quarterback Jack kemp (a member of Congress from New York, a presidential candidate, and the Republican candidate VP in 1996). The most famous basketball player in politics was Bill Bradley, the Princeton and NBA star who served three terms in the United States Senate and ran for president in 2000.

The categories above don’t cover the different ways people get famous and then get into politics at all. John C. Frémont was a famous explorer. Herbert Hoover (known as the Grand Humanitaire) gained worldwide fame as a food relief organizer during and after World War I before entering government service. And in our time, a significant number of veterans of the civil rights movement have made their way into electoral politics (led by the late John lewis).

Ultimately, there is no real evidence that we are entering some sort of golden age of celebrities entering politics, or even that Trump changed everything. He may be the least accomplished celebrity to ever win high office, but he was not the first and hardly will be the last.


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