Saturday, November 06, 2010

Actors versus Beautiful Know-Nothings

Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be actors.

It's a tough profession. Very few jobs, and an awful lot of competition. You work project to project. If you are lucky enough to make a meager living at it, it's because you learn how to deal with feast-and-famine economics.

It is also a widely denigrated profession. It's not considered "real work." The work is misunderstood and suspect: it is regarded almost as a kind of witchcraft. Actors are all really good at lying, did you hear? Can't trust them. Besides, they get into character and forget who they really are. To them, the whole world is just pretend.

(Well, actually, the world is pretend, but the majority of actors don't really believe that any more than the rest of us.)


Watch the prejudiced reactions emerge whenever an actor runs for public office. Sooner than later, somebody who does not like that candidate will suggest that mere entertainers are beneath the seriousness of public office. Artists are beautiful know-nothings, pretenders, and clowns. Political enemies go right for the profession. Al Franken got ripped by Jack Cafferty on CNN, Arnold Schwarzenegger's Democratic rivals belittled him for being an actor and the website Arnoldwatch frequently does the same, along with Sonny Bono, Fred Thompson, and more -- they all got mocked for seeking election. Fred Grandy probably got jokes about his career on the Love Boat when he served in Congress. Despite the strong Republican contingent in Hollywood, show business is frequently played up as being a hotbed of liberal elitism. Anecdotally, I met more Dennis Hoppers in the industry in L.A. than Barbara Streisands, just saying. But this isn't about the liberal/conservative thing. This is about the question, "Are actors suitable for public office?"

Did you notice we have left out the most famous actor-turned-politician of them all? Also a Republican, by the way.

Yeah, him.

President Ronald Reagan's name came up this week in an interview with Sarah Palin, who might actually be a beautiful know-nothing. The way our country jumbles up entertainment, celebrity culture, and politics, it's not especially remarkable that a figure like Sarah Palin has gained such prominence for doing and saying so little. Even so, Karl Rove and others are casting aspersions on her political viability because she is starring in a reality television show. During an interview, she was asked to respond to this criticism. She tried to underscore the irony:

wasn't Ronald Reagan an actor, wasn't he in Bedtime for Bonzo -- bozo, something. . .

It was Bonzo.

Peggy Noonan, a former Reagan speechwriter and not a fan of the Mama Grizzly, fired back.

Ronald Reagan was an artist who willed himself into leadership as president of a major American labor union (Screen Actors Guild, seven terms, 1947-59.) He led that union successfully through major upheavals (the Hollywood communist wars, labor-management struggles); discovered and honed his ability to speak persuasively by talking to workers on the line at General Electric for eight years; was elected to and completed two full terms as governor of California; challenged and almost unseated an incumbent president of his own party; and went on to popularize modern conservative political philosophy without the help of a conservative infrastructure. Then he was elected president. ... He brought his fully mature, fully seasoned self into politics with him.

I will not take the time here to refute Noonan's admiration for Reagan's legacy or his presidency. That would make a very long and potentially incendiary post. What we agree on is that Ronald Reagan was much more than some airheaded entertainer who made B-movies. It is true, he was a union leader, a worker in a difficult profession, and someone who engaged in politics and who (for better or, as I might argue, for much worse) influenced our nation's history and its political discourse, continuing deeply into the new century. And yes, he was an actor.

We elect lots of folks to public office, who come from lots of different professions. Lawyers. Teachers. Farmers and ranchers. Professional athletes. Doctors. Tom DeLay, one of the most powerful figures in Congressional history, was a pest control guy. John Boehner, the presumptive speaker of the house come January, has a background in sales. You get the point.

Here's my comment about actors serving in public office.

To succeed, actors cannot only be artists; they have to be successful as businesspeople. They themselves are the business. Unless they are born into Hollywood royalty (like your Nicholas Cages and George Clooneys), the actors have to know the trade backwards and forwards, and to be audacious and break the rules at just the right time, and be very lucky on top of it, just to get an opportunity.

A person like that will very likely succeed in elected office if that's what they set themselves to do. Personally, I just hope they are interested in serving the interests of people rather than -- well, you know, the interests that Reagan served. A figure like Reagan who was actually on the side of people would be a dangerous figure indeed.


quid said...


Sorry I haven't been commenting in awhile. I'm pretty self-absorbed in a job hunt.

I liked this post. I hadn't read Noonan (tho I love her aserbic wit). I reacted with scorn to Palin's comment in the same way she did...that Reagan had an accomplished career long after his movie marquee success was behind him, and before he ran for president. One of the things he did well was to surround himself with knowledgeable people and then follow their advice. And, although he became a wealthy man by most standards, I truly believe that he wanted to serve because he had a passion for leading people that outweighed his passion for money. The same, of course, cannot be said for the laughable Palin, who seems to value money over all, and who, in the two years since she lost the election, has learned far more about show biz than she has about our foreign policy, for example.

She can run, but she cannot win an election because she does not know how to surround herself with savvy and skilled people, and, when she does, she alienates them quickly.


Algernon said...

Reagan was also a complex person. I am horrified and saddened by what has been wrought by his government, and occasionally I wonder what was going on beneath the surface of this union president turned union buster, with Communists under his bed and who could not utter the name of AIDS for years while Americans (did he even count them as Americans?) died in frightening numbers.

Whatever was in his head, we can agree he had a complexity that is conspicuously absent in the person of Sarah Palin.