Uncle Sam V Uncle Shyam

Being a celeb in Politics is no guarantee on transporting the voting public to a never-neverland-of-happy-ever-after.


As election fever hots up in India, the most unlikely of Bollwood folks are jumping into the fray, not unlike Hollywood stars. While Ronald Reagan and Terminator Arnold Schwarznegger remain the most well known celeb stars to hit the political arena as president of the United States and governor of California respectively, there are tons of others who have thrown their hats into the ring with different degrees of success.

Dirty Harry Clint Eastwood served as mayor between 1986-88 of Carmel-by-the-Sea, an artist enclave of nearly 4,000 residents, south of Monterrey, on the California coast. TV actress Nancy Kulp unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. House of Representatives from Pennsylvania in 1984. Also Al Lewis, another TV star, ran on the Green ticket for governor of New York in 1998, scooping up over 50,000 votes. Then there was Fred Grandy who ran a successful campaign as a Republican for the House of Representatives from Iowa in 1986 and Fred Thompson, of the popular TV series Law and Order, who was elected twice to the U.S. Senate and made an unsuccessful run for the White House in 2008.

Shirley Temple, the famous child star, made an unsuccessful bid for Congress in 1967 and then went on to hold several diplomatic posts, including ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia. George Murphy, became the first actor to be elected to the U.S. Senate representing California in 1964. Then there is Jesse Ventura, who was elected governor of Minnesota in 1999.

The emergence of TV started this trend. Politics before the Idiot Box was solidly print-driven with newspapers, publications and the printed word perceived as the ultimate vehicle of mass communication for political propaganda. During the early years of TV, a suspecting, cynical and skeptical public rooted for the press as the “known devil,” tried, tested and credible. However within a decade, things changed dramatically. Why? Being an audio-visual medium, it presented much more flexibility in not only communicating, but exhibiting, in sight and sound, content in an exciting and dramatic manner that was decidedly viewer-friendly.

Celebrities, especially of the Showbiz kind, revel in this setting. As trained professionals, they are experts in the art of attracting attention through looks and action. As Hollywood and fan-worship took on alarming dimensions, the lines between Hollywood and Washington started to blur with both parties realizing the worth of their strategic alliance.

Reason two, say observers, is the unmatched ability of these stars to raise funds through public engagement. Cashing in on their brand equity is a critical component of this game. Finally, there is the fatigue, cynicism and disgust of the general public toward traditional politicians, viewed as turncoats, manipulative opportunists and rogues who seldom walk the talk and the White Knight syndrome which projects these stars as outsiders–turned-saviors, all set to provide a new, fresh, exciting, positive perspective — like in the movies — to the jaded and dishonest blueprint of the old guard.

Ronald Reagan rose to become President of the United States.
Analysts and observers however are quick to offer a note of caution alongside and warn us that being a celeb in politics is no guarantee on transporting the voting public to a never-never-land-of-happy-ever-after. They point to the failure of John Glenn’s presidential bid and Bill Bradley’s tragic fate in trying to wean away the democratic nomination from Al Gore. In conclusion, they say, there are three commandments writ in stone, in the journey from Hollywood to Washington: Communication skills, political shrewdness and clever distancing from the ever-hungry, rampaging sensation-seeking tabloid press. The skill to engage with the public with honesty, warmth, intelligence and humor is perceived as the definitive passport to political life.

So whether it’s Uncle Sam of USA or Uncle Shyam of India, the ground realities for showbiz personalities pitch forked into the political arena — by design or accident —share many common areas. So, ready, steady and go … may the best dazzler win!

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