On the weekend before the start of the two national conventions, the problem with politics stared at the country from any television that was tuned into CNN.
There, looking as solemnly as if this was the most important update Americans could hear, was none other than Sean Penn talking to Anderson Cooper as if this actor were a U.S. ambassador to some troubled Third World country.
And maybe he is. Maybe Obama has named Sean Penn to represent the United States somewhere his incredible insight and temperament could serve some use beyond learning lines from a screenplay. Of course, the only person who has appointed Sean as an ambassador to anything is the president of Haiti where perhaps he’ll be happy when he retires and runs for public office there.
But here in America, Sean Penn only has to be a famous actor, intoxicated as the country is with celebrity and fame.
Celebrity and politics. Who knew there would be mutual lust? Though exactly when the line between celebrity and politics became blurred is still a bit fuzzy.
Maybe it was when John F. Kennedy, already linked to Hollywood through his sister’s marriage to actor Peter Lawford, became president. Perhaps it was further cemented by his affair with Marilyn Monroe.
Or let’s go back even further, to the affair that JFK’s father — family patriarch Joseph, the ambassador to the Court of St. James’s — had with then silver screen queen Gloria Swanson.
Today celebrity and politics is nowhere as discreet. Celebrities and Hollywood hotshots fund many national campaigns, especially those of Democrats, and the really famous ones are usually quick to pitch for whatever cause moves them.
And so we wind up with actors – from the grown up Jeff Spicoli of Sean Penn to Gabrielle Marquez Lang Solis of Eva Longoria – all giving celebrity endorsements and being interviewed not only on gossip shows like E! but also on national television news shows as if they could actually be real-life policy-makers on anything not written and directed by Aaron Sorkin or his brethren.
And they come off beautifully, never stumbling over their words the way politicians and real policy-makers do – and in the process making the latter look awful, unpolished and insincere.
Unfortunately, too often TV, pundits and viewers fail to distinguish that Penn, Longoria, George Clooney and the like are professional actors, trained to sell the made-up lines they deliver as if they believed every word they’re saying. Penn may be the worst of them, giving the news camera the same broken forehead frown and sniffle we see in all his characters.
My lord. But then even in Hollywood, actors have come a long way. There was a time in the early part of the 20th Century when hotels, apartments and rooming houses in Tinseltown used to have signs outside that read “No dogs, No Actors.”
As late as 1966, when Ronald Reagan ran for governor of California, no less than fellow actor Gene Kelley appeared in his opponent’s television commercial saying, “In films I played a gambler, a baseball player and I could play a governor but you wouldn’t really want an actor to really be a governor would you?”
So maybe America owes more to Ronald Reagan, the consummate Republican known as “the Great Communicator,” than we ever imagined. He legitimized actors in politics.
All ambitious Republican politicians now imagine themselves as Ronald Reagan, and Democrats are left playing Gene Kelley, I suppose.
Is it any wonder then that the psyche of America politics is so screwed up? Can you imagine George Washington or Thomas Jefferson attempting to fashion themselves after the actors of that time?
It’s unlikely because in the pre-revolutionary years many of the colonies passed laws forbidding the performance of plays, and the Continental Congress urged that all plays be banned during the war.
Imagine a nation without actors, movie stars and celebrities.
What could those founding fathers possibly have known?