America’s Celebrity Culture Presidency

PUBLISHED: January 29, 2008, The Los Angeles Daily News


WITH A LIFE-SIZE REPLICA of the Oval Office, the seal of power gleaming off Air Force One and reams of White House documents, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley may be the ideal setting for today’s Republican presidential debate. 

Just as Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre – the site of the Oscars, next to the handprints of movie greats at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, with characters from Spiderman to Darth Vader panhandling outside – may be the perfect venue for Thursday’s Democratic debate. 

From historic to Hollywood, the contrast between the venues highlights not only Los Angeles’ own idiosyncracies but a culture of celebrity reflected in both campaigns. 

“They really have become – on the Democratic side – celebrities in the truest form,” says Elizabeth Currid, a USC professor who specializes in the sociology of fame and pop culture.

“When you talk about their charisma, when you talk about (Barack) Obama and you talk about his youth, his beautiful family, his ability to mesmerize a crowd – these are the same attributes that we bestow upon Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt or any other celebrity. 

“Ironically, I think that in the Republican party, the celebrity appeal is actually being used against Mitt Romney. He’s the only one there that has classic good looks and (is) All-American … with his hair that looks too perfect.” 

And it all makes the two settings perfect for the debates. 

“Reagan is the iconic figure of the Republican Party, plus (the presidential library is) outside of town – it’s away from the mid part of the city so they can all sort of worship at the shrine of Ronald Reagan,” says Raphael Sonsenshein, government professor at Cal State Fullerton. 

“That’s kind of Republican L.A., on the outskirts of town, north and northwest valley. And the Kodak Theatre is right in the middle of Hollywood, which now is the most liberal voting area of Los Angeles, and it’s in the celebrity crowd that tends to be drawn more to the Democrats and in the shadow of the writers’ strike. 

“I couldn’t imagine them obviously reversing the two locations. It wouldn’t make any sense.” 

For all their celebrity – or noncelebrity – the debates will be the last before next week’s Super Tuesday primaries across the country, when half the delegates to this summer’s national conventions will be chosen. 

Democratic voters in 22 states will go to the polls Tuesday, and California stands to be the biggest prize of this primary season with a bitter showdown between the two most charismatic candidates in either race: New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, the leader in polls in California, and Obama, the fast-rising senator from Illinois. 

“The Clintons – for all the good and bad publicity they are given – they are still a glamorous, charismatic couple,” says Currid, author of “The Warhol Economy: How Fashion, Art and Music Drive New York City.” 

“They are a fixture in American life, and that is a part of who they are.” 

The debates hit California after the most dramatic two weeks of the campaigns so far. 

With wins in South Carolina and Florida, Arizona Sen. John McCain has emerged as the front-runner in the GOP race, and he and Romney have become combative.

And after losing in South Carolina to Obama, Clinton has seen her front-runner status threatened while Obama has picked up endorsements including longtime party icon Ted Kennedy. 

The drama is expected to continue at the Democratic debate in Los Angeles, where the ANSWER Coalition and other peace groups have planned an anti-war protest and picket outside the Kodak Theatre. 

Families who have lost their homes or are facing foreclosure also have vowed to set up a “Save the Dream Tent City” a block from the Kodak Theatre, hoping to draw attention to their plight. 

Among those involved is Tommy Beard, a cook at St. Francis Hospital, and his wife, Deborah, a teacher’s assistant, who are threatened with the loss of their home. 

Their adjustable rate mortgage loan takes a big jump next year, and the Beards are already behind on their payments after medical problems forced Deborah to miss work several months. 

Their call for government action on interest rates and bankruptcy laws already falls on sympathetic Democratic ears. 

Obama, Clinton and former Sen. John Edwards all favor legislation that would ease the problems of homeowners suffering from rising mortages.

But on Hollywood Boulevard, the tent city could just as easily be mistaken by tourists as simply another attraction amid the stars of Charlie Chaplin, Fred Astaire, Vivien Leigh and Tyrone Power immortalized on that particular strip of the Walk of Fame. 

Still, the celebrity shine is not confined to the Democratic contenders. Among Republicans, McCain boasts the endorsement of Sylvester Stallone, and Mike Huckabee claims the backing of Chuck Norris. 

It is a phenomenon that extends even beyond Hollywood, says Currid. 

“We’re not even talking about necessarily traits that we associate with good political leadership,” she said. “This is certainly not to say that these politicians aren’t good, because they are extremely competent. 

“But to say that the things the media is focusing on is less about political traits and more about the ephemeral, charismatic traits that we also associate with celebrity.” 

Of course, tourists on Hollywood Boulevard won’t see any real stars, unless they buy a $12.50 ticket for one of the flicks at Grauman’s. 

Or unless they hang out outside the Reagan Presidential Library – where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who followed the route of Reagan from Hollywood star to governor, will attend today’s debate and escort Nancy Reagan to her front-row seat, as he did at the first debate last May. 

This time, however, there will be half as many candidates on the GOP stage as there were in the first debate and the scene will be different as well. 

While the May debate took place in what appeared to be an airport hangar with the retired Air Force One dwarfing the scene, a new floor has been built to the level of the plane’s fuselage and the debate will take place on a newly constructed tier. 

The Reagan Library also will display to the public – for one day only – rare presidential and historical documents from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee. 

At the Kodak Theatre, the closest thing to a historical document on display could well be the handprints of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks in cement nearby. 

In a town without an NFL team and with the finals of “American Idol” still weeks away, the debate at the Kodak could wind up being a hot ticket.

“I need a ticket to the Democratic debate next week at the Kodak Theatre. I work in entertainment, so I can trade tickets to other events or I can pay cash.”