Players: When Celebrity Candidates Win

Posted September 16, 2003 at 6:23pm

In this season of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s (R) campaign for governor of California, much attention is being paid once again to that odd breed of political animal, the celebrity candidate.

The pros of a celebrity candidacy are obvious — instant name recognition, and access to money and publicity among them. The pitfalls are also pretty apparent.

“Reporters love to cover celebrities,” said Darrell West, a Brown University political scientist and co-author of the book “Celebrity Politics.” “And they love to make fun of them.”

Former four-term Rep. Fred Grandy (R-Iowa), who played Gopher on the 1970s comedy “The Love Boat,” said that while everybody knew who he was when he first ran for the House in 1986, “nobody took me seriously.”

Grandy added that people take interest in celebrity politicians to see “how big a fool they can make of themselves.”

For all the attention these candidates get, rarely do the pundits consider what happens when celebrities actually win their elections — especially when they arrive in a legislative body like Congress, where collegiality is critical.

People who have been there say famous lawmakers have a lot to prove because they often “leapfrog” the traditional political process.

Rep. Tom Osborne (R-Neb.), the former University of Nebraska football coach who arrived in 2001, described an innate skepticism in many Members’ minds about what a celebrity can “bring to the table.”

“Those questions aren’t applied to the average person,” he said.

Rep. Mary Bono (R-Calif.), who came to Congress when her celebrity husband, Rep. Sonny Bono (R-Calif.), died in a 1998 skiing accident, said she worked hard to earn her colleagues’ respect.

“Once I was elected in my special election, I really had to prove myself and I had to prove myself three times over,” said Bono, who beat another celebrity, Ralph Waite, an actor who played the father on “The Waltons” TV series.

Osborne said that because his reputation preceded him, colleagues were more inclined to approach him.

“I think a lot of people who couldn’t remember my name remembered I was

coach and called me coach,” the fifth-winningest coach in college football history said.

Grandy said his celebrity status actually helped jump-start his Congressional career. Now a radio talk-show host, Grandy recalled that several committee chairmen were vying to get him “just because their wives were fans of the show.”

Celebrities in Congress tend to have more freedom than their colleagues — especially the freedom to cross partisan lines.

“Celebrities are unpredictable in terms of how they vote because they’re not constrained by the typical ideological cleavages,” West said. For example, he said, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) veered away from the Republican Party line on campaign finance reform because “the fact that he was a war hero gave him flexibility to do things that a normal politician would not be able to do.”

Some celebrities tend to vote more moderately than many of their counterparts.

For example, Sonny Bono voted with Democrats on social issues 42 percent of the time in 1996, according to a National Journal analysis. In 2000, McCain voted with his liberal counterparts 47 percent of the time on economic issues, and in 1999, he agreed with Democrats 44 percent of the time on foreign policy.

Mary Bono, who voted with Democrats 43 percent of the time on social issues and 39 percent of the time on foreign policy issues in 2000, said the high name identification permits celebrity Members to stray from their party when necessary. She added that famous people are “not afraid to alienate a certain part of your constituency because you do have high name ID, which makes it easier to vote with your conscience.”

Osborne, who does not accept any political action committee or special interest campaign contributions, said that because of his celebrity status, “I’m pretty much freed up to do what’s best.

“I’d hate to lose an election,” he continued, “but on the other hand I feel that at this stage of my life I need to vote the way I feel I need to to represent this district.”

West said celebrities have a positive impact on the nation’s politics.

“We argue [in his book] that celebrities are a source of innovation for the political system because they can take unconventional stances on issues,” he said.

He added that voters “often see celebrities as white knights who are untainted by past political involvement.”

But while they welcome the flexibility, celebrity politicians said there are also perils that come with the territory. Mary Bono characterized “the stereotyping that a celebrity has to get beyond” as the “biggest issue in celebrity politics.”

Bono recalled that her husband was portrayed as “a straight man” on the “Sonny and Cher Show” and was therefore typically cast in that role.

“Sonny always loved to be underestimated,” she said. “People expected the Sonny from the show.”

Osborne noted that “people tend to have a preconceived idea about you because you’ve been somewhat of a public entity.”

West said that traditional politicians are often resentful of celebrity officeholders, because they think their well-known colleagues “are substituting fame for achievement.”

But Mary Bono knows from experience that celebrities can make a good name for themselves in the world of politics.

“People will pay attention to you,” she said, “but you’re going to have to meet expectations.”