A few words, if you can bear any more, which touch fleetingly upon the death of John F. Kennedy Jr. Somewhere in the mass of stories were suggestions that had he been granted his full allotment of three score and 10, he very likely would have run for public office. And at least one political consultant asserted that he could have started at the top, by running for the White House, without stopping on Capitol Hill, because he had a glamorous name and had become famous in his own right.
It would be hard to find a more telling insight into the age of post-serious American politics, and a more chilling summary of the deterioration in America’s old-fashioned, small “r” republicanism. Not that Kennedy wasn’t serious, or that he believed such claptrap about his role in that oxymoronic class known as American royalty. But in the scheming little minds of those who control those who control us, fame has become the credential that matters most in politics, and media-certified celebrity blood lines really do count for something. Imagine what Tom Paine would have made of such nonsense. His soul surely would be tried yet again.
We needn’t speculate about Kennedy might-have-beens to see the effects of celebrity culture on the formerly serious business of administering government, conducting diplomacy, starting wars, etc. As politics continues its fall-of-Rome descent into a trivial art form designed merely to amuse the elites, and as candidates are measured not by ideas but by the amount of money they can attract, mere fame already counts for more than all the bills in all the legislatures in all the world. It is a case of politics imitating the culture, for the boomer-controlled media clearly think of fame
as Calvinists once viewed material success, as a sign of approval from on high. We are told that the famous are somehow greater than the rest of us; they tell us what we should buy, what our values ought to be, and what we should think about the great issues of the day (support partial-birth abortion; oppose the harming of animals during film shoots). It is no great leap, then, to believe that we are just a step or two away from celebrocratic rule, enforced by the insulated masters of irony who regard government as a poorly delivered joke. Tina Brown as head of CBS News? Harrison Ford as President? Why not? It’s all show biz, baby!
The chattering classes regard Hillary Clinton as a strong candidate for the august U.S. Senate because she is famous, and a certain type of New Yorker (ironic, shallow and hip, a reader of books detailing the lives of other ironic, shallow and hip New Yorkers) believes that her fame is a sure sign that the gods of postmodernism have ordained her for leadership. The First Lady clearly is a formidable woman, but ultimately she will be a celebrity candidate should she finally decide to declare herself. The message to other New York Democrats is unmistakable: Celebrity is all that matters; fame trumps accomplishment. Surely there are ambitious, veteran Congressmen in the far corners of the Empire State who are muttering privately about the party’s apparent surrender to pop politics.
Of course, Mrs. Clinton wouldn’t be the first celebrity Senator. California, always ahead of the curve on such matters, gave us George Murphy, a genial, minor-league Hollywooder who served in the Senate in the 1960’s and proved himself a better dancer than a legislator. A proper and dignified response would be that New York is not California, that a state that served the American Century as well as Massachusetts and Virginia served the country’s first 50 years knows the difference between superficial fame and genuine achievement. Ah, but New York is no longer the Empire State of 40 years ago, and the Democratic Party probably would settle for Alec Baldwin-He’s famous! He’s glamorous! He’s part of American Royalty!-should Mrs. Clinton decide to hold on to her Cubs cap.
We have traveled some distance since actor-turned-politician Ronald Reagan won the White House in 1980. Some might argue that his triumph was the ultimate fusion of show business, celebrity and politics. But that awful combination has only gotten worse since his victory, and, in some sense, his transition from actor to world leader now looks quaint. He served a successful apprenticeship as Governor of California for eight years, and worked the hustings for years afterward before finally winning the prize. Once in office, he proved himself to be more than just a vapid Hollywood pretender, showing a sense of leadership, an understanding of power and an appreciation for symbols that shamed many professional politicians.
Two decades after Ronald Reagan, the media are preparing for the day when celebrities-the new aristocrats, predestined for greatness-shall lead us, not after learning how to lead, as Mr. Reagan did, but simply by the strength of their fame.
The Vandals are out there somewhere, waiting.