The Fame Monster

Column: Celebrity endorsements are all Obama has left

June 8, 2012

The few remaining skeptics of the idea that there is an American ruling class—comprising the perversely overcompensated men and women in finance, law, media, and entertainment who through a bizarre, osmotic alchemy determine the boundaries of social and political correctness—need only glance at the president’s schedule.

The Washington Examiner counts no less than 28 celebrity fundraisers for Obama held over the last year. Indeed, the incumbent’s reliance on celebrity money, endorsements, solicitations, and other forms of that self-congratulatory alternative energy known as "star power" not only reveals the financial and ideological core of the Democratic party, but also the attitudes and agenda of the milieu in which Obama is most comfortable. Those attitudes are obnoxious and that agenda is totally unrelated to the daily struggles of millions of Americans—which is why no amount of bleating from Carrie Bradshaw will help the president in November.

This was the week when the Obama campaign finally turned into an episode of Andy Cohen’s Watch What Happens Live. It started with an endorsement literally from the devil herself, Anna Wintour, who—draped coquettishly in an Obama 2012 neckerchief—said she and Sarah Jessica Parker plan to host a dinner party for Barack and "Mee-shell Oh-bah-mah" to which two lucky raffle winners will be invited. Parker seconded the invitation during the MTV Movie Awards, where she called Obama "that guy."

Then came a trio of New York City fundraisers alongside Bill Clinton, including stops at the Upper East Side den of hedge fund billionaire Marc Lasry, the Waldorf Ballroom where rock star and presidential hitchhiker Jon Bon Jovi wheezed through some of his greatest hits, and the New Amsterdam Theatre on Broadway where the two presidents, Angela Lansbury, Doogie Howser, First Lady Abbey Bartlet, and Darth Vader took the stage in between performances of Mary Poppins. The jolly holiday came to a show-stopping finish with the president’s trip to California, where the ranks of celebrity attendees at three fundraisers included Willie Mays, Cher, Mister Sulu, and half the cast of Glee.

That many of the participants at these events understood how easily they could be caricatured as limousine liberals only heightened the dramatic tension. Munching on "grilled Coho salmon with sea beans, purple artichokes, and lemon caper sauce," San Francisco super-lawyer and Obama donor Martin Checov said that "the other candidate’s travel schedule is no more oriented to the masses," using language better suited to an aristocrat than a Democrat. (Credit pool reporter Todd Gillman for this tasty morsel.)

Later, outside the Wilshire Hotel in Los Angeles, as CBS president Leslie Moonves and his reality-show host second wife "waited patiently for their wristbands" to hear Obama tell a dirty joke, the media mogul acknowledged that "partisanship is very much a part of journalism now," but don’t get the wrong idea: "I run a news division. I’ve given no money to any candidate." The Los Angeles Times reporter who related Moonves’ comments neglected to mention whether he was chuckling at his own blatant hypocrisy or simply so completely self-possessed that he told this joke un-ironically. It’s unclear which would be more damning.

Running concurrently with the never-ending Obama benefit gala is the Michelle Obama show. Recently the first lady racked up IMDB credits with appearances on The View and The Late Show to complement turns on The Tonight Show, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Rachael Ray, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, The BET Honors, The Biggest Loser, and the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards. Her husband, too, is no stranger to screens large and small, most recently "slow jamming" the news with Jimmy Fallon. Together, they are on track to be the most televised first couple of all time. Pretty soon they’ll be helping Ernie Brown Jr. catch snapping turtles on Call of the Wildman.

Yet the Obamas have been slow to learn that the currency of celebrity depreciates easily. Their notoriety has been a sort of Roman candle, rising quickly before bursting into a hundred tiny flames. After he released The Audacity of Hope in 2006, Obama entered the celestial ranks of the truly famous. People traveled from every direction, and waited in line for hours, to see him. The crowds grew as he ran for the White House. He was able to fill entire stadiums by the time he was the Democratic nominee for president. The so-called "Barack Star" was more analogous to Bruce Springsteen and Bono than to John Kerry and John McCain. The scene in Grant Park on Election Night 2008 seemed like it could have been shot on a back lot in Burbank. Not only were Scarlett Johannson and Will.I.Am on his side back then; the American people were, too.

However, there comes a point at which fame and admiration are no longer freely given but must be earned, lest one risk becoming nothing more than a tawdry reality television star. Much of the president’s early fame was a function of his unusual status as a national symbol. He represented promise, reconciliation, and renewal. What he delivered was different. No number of television interviews or guest spots or addresses could make the stimulus effective or the health care overhaul popular. No signs of support from Beyoncé or Lady Gaga or Deepak Chopra could make the president seem decisive or in control as the public debt has mounted. Dave Matthews and Ben Harper could give a million concerts, but the American public still would disagree with the president’s decision to scuttle the Keystone Pipeline.

So Republicans and independents and conservative Democrats abandoned the president even as the celebrities remained. This development is what has given us the discordant picture of an incumbent palling around with the rich and famous despite raising less money than his challenger in the month of May. The president’s alienation from the "masses" has accelerated the process of donor capture, whereby Obama becomes beholden to the interests of his remaining contributors. Take, for example, his evolution into the first gay president, which occurred less than 48 hours after powerful bundlers threatened to withhold funds over same-sex marriage. Or consider the president’s sudden appearance on a conference call to support the Senate’s Paycheck Fairness Act, which if passed would provide lucrative opportunities for Obama’s tort lawyer friends.

Nor is this merely an example of the president’s vanity. Celebrity’s effects on the character of our democracy are more corrosive still. Cynics must love the image of a president who mouths egalitarian slogans while shuttling back and forth from high-dollar fundraisers with George Clooney and Steven Spielberg. Ellen DeGeneres seems like a lovely, decent, and funny person, but America’s prospects and public discourse might be improved if the president tried to better understand the views of John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, and Paul Ryan instead. Can you imagine what nonsense is uttered over canapés and white wine at these high-priced dinners in the industry enclaves of New York City and Los Angeles? No wonder Obama’s rhetoric becomes more indistinguishable from the MSNBC comedy hours with each passing day.

The very idea of raffling off presidential dinners using celebrity videos is un-republican. The argument the video stars make is largely an argument from power: All the cool kids are supporting Obama, they imply, so you should, too. The contest, moreover, emphasizes luck over merit: Donate $3, and maybe, just maybe, you will be rewarded with a trip to the summit of Mount Olympus. Such a dubious prize exploits the inequalities of status and wealth that are at the heart of so much contemporary American anxiety.

The frenetic and panicked donation-grabbing shows how much Obama has been weakened. There was a time when he could fill stadiums on his own, raise great sums on his own, get a dinner companion on his own. That time is long past: Nearly 90 percent of Obama’s individual donors in 2008 have not contributed in the current cycle, Buzzfeed reported this week. Obama has become a prop in his own play, an empty suit that trails Robert De Niro or Jack Black or Tobey Maguire or Salma Hayek or whichever other famous, chic person Jim Messina and David Axelrod think might bring in some dough or inspire a Millennial to vote.

In his conversations with actors Obama must have learned that fame can be fickle and cruel. What William James called the "bitch-goddess success" has not treated him any differently. "With enough care and effort you can grow your own Barack-oli," Michelle Obama said as part of her Late Show "Top 10 List." She held up a hideous green sculpture of her husband’s face carved into a gigantic broccoli head. The audience laughed, but the import of the moment could not have been clearer: Obama, like so many of his Hollywood friends, began as a shiny bauble—and he has ended up as kitsch.