Even or especially ordinary people know that when celebrities possess a singular artistic greatness, their lives are not for envy or imitation. Two of the most revered and beloved American celebrities were Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson. Certainly their deaths plunged us into grief in a way rivaled only by assassination of a president. Americans were “connected” to Elvis and Michael at least as much as they were to President Kennedy. But everyone knows that their lives were sad, screwed up, and self-destructive, and their young deaths were virtually suicides. Nobody models his or her family after Elvis’s or Michael’s. And everyone knows they used their great wealth to indulge extravagantly their bizarre personal fantasies. In Michael case, everyone thinks they know (whether it’s true or not) that much of his wealth was consumed by buying his way out of criminal self-indulgence with children, and both of them, it seems, couldn’t help but degrade themselves by being desperately addicted to drugs.
We know that somehow that Michael’s and Elvis’s greatness was inseparable from their misery, and their deaths filled us with love based on understanding—or maybe the misunderstanding that Elvis and Michael sacrificed themselves for us. Anyone would love to sing like Elvis or dance like Michael, and it’s even fun to dress up like them. But hardly anyone would want to live or really be just like either of them. Shifting, briefly, to a deeper version of celebrity greatness, we can all say we want to be troubled enough and spiritual enough to appreciate the music of Johnny Cash. But who would want to go through the hell of actually being Johnny Cash? (We can say the same, of course, about Charley Parker and Thelonious Monk.) It’s only when celebrity is detached from singular talent and some kind of greatness of soul that the “role model” problem emerges in a big way.
Celebrity greatness, being self-absorbed or irresponsible, is still easily distinguished from political greatness. Politicians (or, better, political leaders) either aren’t or are more than celebrities. President Obama is quite the celebrity, but he’s more than that. (Before he ran for president, it wasn’t so clear he was more than that.) Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Mike Huckabee are now merely celebrities. Sara Palin skillfully made the transition from politician to celebrity. Being governor of Alaska was boring and badly paid, becoming president was and will continue to be a most improbable longshot, but now she’s rich and famous and commands the media’s attention in all its dimensions. John Edwards was a slick celebrity lawyer who passed for a while as a politician; that’s why we needed the National Enquirer to let us in on what he was up to all along. Political commentators, such as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, are celebrities and nothing more; they’re judged for their entertainment value.
We doubt politicians really are more trustworthy than celebrities, but we demand that they be so. We expect them to behave more responsibly in their personal lives (although the path breaking Clinton narrowed the gap between celebrity and politician here), and we hold them accountable for what they actually do in power. The best way they have of being respected–or even being popular–is by being effective. It’s amazing, in a media-driven, high-tech democracy, that more celebrities don’t morph into politicians, and it’s equally amazing that so many politicians perform badly or are so boring on television. Few politicians have what it takes to morph into celebrities.
Schwarzenegger is a rather singular example of an outstanding celebrity actor who became a genuinely responsible political leader. Some postmodern studies suggest that people voted for Arnold because they couldn’t tell the difference between the real man and the invincible action hero from the movies. But everyone now knows no mere man who plays action heroes can keep California from tanking. Then there’s the very singular case of Reagan–the bad actor who became a great president. Fred Thompson reminded us that most bad actors who look like presidents shy away from the arduous work required actually to be a political leader.
Celebrities, of course, use the stage they’ve been given to express their political opinions, and they are often irresponsibly quite self-righteous about the ignorance and corruption of those who run the government. As artists, they’re especially contemptuous of Republicans, who are vulgarly obsessed with money and cater to “fundamentalist” and patriotic or anti-artistic, anti-liberationist opinion. But they’re indulgent of Democrats who look down on the heartland for desperately clinging to guns and God from the heights of celebrity affairs on the West Coast.
Celebrities characteristically engage in the silly “literary politics” that used to be reserved to poets and novelists and other more genuine bohemians. They usually aren’t particularly well educated and informed. They’re even more easily seduced by conspiracy theories than ordinary people. We can turn, for example, to Charlie Sheen and Rosie O’Donnell to learn that 9/11 was really the secret plot of the American government. And celebrities love the sovereign disdain for the facts in pursuit of the conspiratorial “truth” that characterize the engaging “narratives” of Michael Moore and Oliver Stone.
Living in huge houses hanging off the sides of hills in the overpopulated and earthquake-prone California desert, they’re especially concerned about the future of the planet, and they unreservedly admire the Al Gore who designed his account of an inconvenient (and very alarming) truth for their edification. Celebrities regularly display their pseudo-sophistication on Bill Maher’s show, certain they’re on the vanguard of moral and political enlightenment. None of this is to say that celebrities have much more impact on the outcome of elections than other very rich people. Celebrities, like philosophers in an unjust country, don’t desire and aren’t compelled to rule. It’s only fair to add that many of the causes celebrities so generously fund to display their class do lots of good for real people.