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When You Wish Upon a Politician

August 06, 2000|Steven D. Stark | Steven D. Stark, a pop culture commentator for National Public Radio, is author of "Glued to the Set: The 60 Television Shows and Events That Made Us Who We Are Today."

BOSTON — The line between entertainment and politics, as we all know, is exceedingly thin. But one often overlooked attribute that both share is a fascination with the value and drawbacks of "the star." After John McCain's appearances in Philadelphia last week, Campaign 2000's only star is off the main stage. Make no mistake about it: Despite his failure to win the GOP nomination, McCain was the only political figure this year with the kind of "star quality" that Hollywood instantly recognizes: rugged good looks, a heroic persona and pure box-office draw. When he entered a scene, the action tended to revolve around him, whether the topic was the vice presidency (his name briefly surfaced) or the dominant issue in his campaign (campaign-finance reform).

Put it this way: If a studio were to cast a movie about this year's campaign and wanted to make money, it would have to get an actor who could elevate the sophomoric George W. Bush (Bruce Willis?) and someone to make Al Gore's roboticism a virtue (Arnold Schwarzenegger with a new accent?). But McCain could play McCain, just as Ronald Reagan could have played Reagan and every actor who has tried to play Jack Kennedy or even Bill Clinton has been inferior to the original. (Sorry, John Travolta.)

Hollywood's star system and how it affects the studios can tell us a lot about the advantages and drawbacks of having a star like McCain in a political party. Though it often doesn't seem that way to the hoi polloi, insiders know that stardom cuts both ways: What's good for the public or reporters, both entertainment and political, is frequently bad for studios or political parties. Moreover, in the media age, when politics are often viewed as just another branch of entertainment, it's no coincidence that the decline of the studio picture and "the rise of talent" have coincided with the decline of political parties and the rise of what political scientist Theodore Lowi once called "the personal presidency."

As McCain has demonstrated this year, there are five ways in which the star-struck worlds of Hollywood and Washington intersect:

* A star brings to the theater or political party people who wouldn't normally be there. A Julia Roberts or a Tom Cruise helps attract an audience and gives a film the desired "buzz." More important, add a star like Leonardo DiCaprio to a film such as "Titanic," and you guarantee that his audience of teenage girl fans will go see a film they might have overlooked, thus broadening the movie's appeal.

The same principles hold true in politics. McCain brought a large number of voters into the Republican universe who had never voted in a GOP primary before, thus expanding the party's base. His experience followed the precedent of other political stars. In 1960, John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, attracted the support of a number of conservative Catholics who usually voted Republican; he received the highest number of Catholic votes (78%) of any Democrat in history. In 1980 and 1984, Reagan's unusual appeal to blue-collar workers, the Reagan Democrats, once a linchpin of the New Deal coalition, helped ensure his sweeping victories.

* Stars have to play leads. A star can occasionally play a cameo role without taking over the film, much as Anthony Hopkins did in this summer's version of "Mission: Impossible," or Gen. Colin L. Powell did at last week's GOP convention. Most of the time, however, Hollywood knows that if you cast a star in a movie, the action has to revolve around him or her. Otherwise, the audience rebels (not to mention the star).

That's why the Bush camp was in a panic when talk of a possible vice-presidential bid by McCain surfaced. Had McCain been on the ticket, he would have been the lead, no matter whose name appeared above his. If you aspire to stardom, as all presidential nominees do, you can't be overshadowed, which is why Lyndon B. Johnson wouldn't run with Robert F. Kennedy in 1964, Gerald R. Ford turned down Reagan in 1976 and nominees with lesser self-esteem have to find the Millers, Agnews and Quayles of the world to make themselves look heroic by comparison.

You can pair up two stars: for example, in buddy movies ("Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," "Thelma & Louise") or if they are of the opposite sex. Clinton and Gore tried a variation of the buddy movie in their '92 bus campaign, though, admittedly, no one would mistake Gore for Paul Newman or Robert Redford. As to the male-female star combination, the basis of so many Hollywood blockbusters, our political parties have not yet caught on, though Bill and Hillary did.

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