If you wanted to pursue a career in politics, you could have done worse than appearing in the 1987 movie Predator.
That movie featured not only Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura — future governors of California and Minnesota, respectively — but Sonny Landham, who later ran for governor and senator in Kentucky.
But Predator hasn’t been the only source of celebrity politicians. Clay Aiken, the former American Idol contestant who just announced a run for Congress from North Carolina, is the latest in a long line of actors, singers, reality TV stars and athletes to seek second careers in politics.
“The main thing that celebrities bring to the political stage is name recognition,” says David Canon, author of Actors, Athletes, and Astronauts: Political Amateurs in the United States Congress. “Even if you’re a B-list actor, you’re going to have great name recognition.”
Plenty of stars turned aspiring politicians have found that being well-known isn’t enough to make a successful run. Name recognition means a lot, but it’s also important to demonstrate knowledge and credible positions on the issues of the day.
Aiken seemed on his initial launch to make the right moves in this regard. Rather than dishing about Simon Cowell, he’s described his run for Congress as an extension of his efforts to help people as a special education teacher.
“He’s doing a good job of not simply identifying himself as being a celebrity,” says Michael Cobb, a political scientist at North Carolina State University. “Let the media bring up American Idol.”
Celebrity Has Its Advantages
Any celebrity running for office is bound to draw more attention than, say, a state senator looking to make a move to Washington.
Few career politicians could ever accrue the coverage that Clint Eastwood got when he ran for mayor of Carmel, Calif., or Schwarzenegger or even Gary Coleman received during California’s recall election back in 2003.
“Name recognition is no small thing,” says William Schneider, a senior fellow at the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way. “Candidates have to spend a lot of money to acquire name recognition, and celebrities don’t have to.”
The celebrity effect works even for people who aren’t household names. In a celebrity-besotted culture, actor-politicians can count not only on plenty of media coverage but on big crowds turning out to see them. It can also help with fundraising.
“Most of these individuals, they’re not top-line stars earning millions, but enough people know them that they can parlay that fame into a political run,” says John Tures, a political scientist at LaGrange College in Georgia, who has written about celebrity politicians.
Before Sonny Bono
Helen Gahagan Douglas, a Broadway and film actress who got involved in California politics, describes a funny moment in her autobiography.
Encouraged by the White House to seek a congressional seat in 1944, Douglas fretted because she had already attended House debates and found them “boring.”
Tom Ford, who was vacating the seat, told her she could always get up and leave the chamber. Douglas said that would be rude. “I simply won’t run for Congress,” she told him.
Douglas went on to serve three terms in the House before being beaten by Richard Nixon in a 1950 Senate race.
She was part of a wave of celebrities who decided to run for office during and not long after World War II, including country musician Roy Acuff (the GOP nominee for Tennessee governor in 1948); former Shirley Temple dance partner George Murphy (a one-term Republican senator from California); and novelists Gore Vidal and James Michener (failed Democratic congressional candidates in New York and Pennsylvania).
Party machines were no longer able to control the nominating process in all cases, Tures says, which opened the door to celebrities who could “jump in.” That became even more true as television became a dominant fact of political life.
“Parties lost control, which doesn’t guarantee you’ll get celebrities running, but it opens the door,” says Canon, a University of Wisconsin political scientist.
Why They Run
It’s not a huge mystery why celebrities sometimes look in the mirror and see future senators and governors looking back.
Some have had prior political experience. Both former Iowa Rep. Fred Grandy and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson worked as aides on Capitol Hill before becoming either famous or elected officials.
But just about every well-known actor gets asked to lend his or her name to causes. Once they become convinced that their celebrity status can be used as a force for good, it’s an easy leap for some to conclude that they should make politics their full-time occupation.
“It gets them thinking that they can make a difference,” says Cobb, the North Carolina State professor. “They start to get involved politically and see it as a natural progression.”
Cutting their teeth on a cause can lend them some gravitas. It just won’t do to ask voters for support unless you can prove leadership on some issues, or at least show that you’ve mastered the briefing books.
Some who were well-known before seeking office, such as star athletes Jack Kemp and Bill Bradley, ended up having substantial political careers, but voters don’t take that as a given.
“What celebrities often lack is credibility,” says Schneider, who teaches public policy at George Mason University. “Even Ronald Reagan had to fight for credibility.”