Politics with the stars

Celebrities in politics, particularly Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his rise to power, was the theme of this week’s politics forum.

The forum, titled “Politics and Celebrity: The Case of Arnold Schwarzenegger,” took place in room 223 of the Social Sciences Building. It was introduced by Gary C. Woodward, professor of communication studies, and the presentation was made by David Blake, professor of English.

“What does it mean to have actors and actresses express political opinions?” Blake asked the group of about 30 students and professors. “What’s the history of this and what do we think about this?”

Blake, who is currently working on a book about democracy and fame in the 21st century, focused on Schwarzenegger and his use of his celebrity status during his “Total Recall” gubernatorial race. In order to understand how an action movie star could rise to political power, according to Blake, one would have to ask Schwarzenegger “what he can tell us of the narrative quality of campaigns.”

Weaving the correct narratives is essential to any campaign, Blake said. He mentioned the Bush administration’s ability to weave the narrative of Sen. John Kerry being a “flip-flopper” during the 2004 presidential election.

The thing that helps celebrities in politics is the fact that they seem to posses more bipartisan appeal than professional politicians.

“People also vote for celebrities to protest traditional politics,” Blake said. Celebrities, ironically, tend to seem more mainstream and not “members of the elite.”

In Schwarzenegger’s case, the public identified with his constant referencing of his past films. By using familiar, popular movies, Schwarzenegger was able to draw a lot of support from the everyday person, according to Blake.

In some cases, politicians can become celebrities, giving them more appeal. Former vice president Al Gore is one such example, with his recent Oscar win for his documentary on global warming, “An Inconvenient Truth.”

“His legitimacy in Hollywood could revitalize a political career that many thought dead,” Blake said. After winning an as Oscar, “we can see him as being sincere in this issue.”

Blake gave a brief history of celebrities in political office, a practice that has stretched back to the 1800s with circus legend P.T. Barnum’s work as a Republican legislator and mayor in Connecticut. Presidents Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy were also cited, as they “brought the allure of celebrity-reflected politics.”

After the presentation, Blake took questions from the audience to go into greater detail. A question was posed about whether or not celebrities in political power are an issue affecting only Americans.

“No, I don’t think it’s a uniquely American issue. This is something that governments in Europe are struggling with,” Blake answered. “Critics call it the Americanization of Dutch politics . but attraction to fame goes back a long, long way.”

“I thought it was very informative,” Gina McGrath, junior English major, said. “He tied together celebrities we see in movies, their narratives, movie roles and how they transcend into politics. I also thought it was a really good turnout.”