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Invasion of the Celebrities

Oprah Winfrey is reportedly considering running for president in 2020, which is the sort of celebrity gossip we used to happily ignore but now have to take seriously in the age of President Donald Trump. She’s a more popular television personality than Trump was before launching his political career, has just as much government experience, and would no doubt get the same lavish media attention Trump received in a presidential race. Her penchant for leaving gifts under the seats would play well with many voters, too, and her warmer and fuzzier public persona might prove all the more appealing after four years of Trump.
There’s also talk of running the musicians Kid Rock or Ted “Motor City Madman” Nugent as Republican candidates for a Michigan Senate seat, billionaire sports owner and reality television star Mark Cuban is apparently starting to wonder why he couldn’t be president, rapper and Trump pal Kanye West has been making threats of a run for years, and former sitcom star Roseanne Barr already has a sixth-place finish in a presidential race and next time around all her crackpot conspiracy theories might not sound so crazy. Celebrities have leaped into high office before, including Sonny Bono and that guy who played the doctor on “Love Boat” to the House of Representatives, a former Saturday Night Live wag to the Senate, and professional wrestler Jesse “The Body” Ventura and professional body builder Arnold Schwarzenegger to the governorships of populous states.
The country had also elected a former Hollywood actor to the presidency, but only after he’d been president of a national labor union and served two terms as governor of the most populous state and many more years as an elder statesman of conservatism, and none of the current crop of celebrity contenders can boast such credentials. Kid Rock’s heavy-metal-rap-country stage show used to include a sidekick midget, so he can credibly claim to stand by the little man, and Nugent’s guitar solo on The Amboy Duke’s “Baby Please Don’t Go” still sounds better than that Elton John and Rolling Stones stuff Trump always plays at his rallies for some reason or another, but that’s not what we’re looking for in a candidate to what’s supposed to be the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body. Cuban strikes us as hipster version of Trump, and he traded Steve Nash from the Dallas Mavericks just before his Most Valuable Player Seasons, and unless he’s darned good on that reality show we’re not that impressed. Kanye West is kookier than Rosanne Barr, too, and the past track record of celebrity apprentices is not promising. Sonny Bono and the Love Boat guy were mediocrities in the House, that Saturday Night Live guy is as much an embarrassment to Minnesota as the pro wrestler was, and Schwarzenegger was far better in “Conan the Barbarian” than he was in the role of Governor of California.
Still, celebrities start with certain advantages if they decide to make a career change to politics. They start with bigger fan bases than mere politicians, for one, because everyone hates politicians. That popularity also derives from a certain image that can be easily carried into the ring, too, such as Trump’s blunt-spoken take-charge businessman shtick, or the sensitive and caring sincerity that Winfrey so effortlessly fakes, and we assume that even the likes of Rock and Nugent and West and Barr have some qualities people find so admirable that they’ve become rich and famous. There’s all that lavish attention the media pay to them, too, while the only time a mere public servant ever gets in the papers is when he’s raising taxes or cutting spending or letting budgets go in the red, because the reality of the real world is that those are really the only things anybody in office can do.
Even the most blunt-talking celebrities aren’t quite so frank as those limited choices and make a case for what they consider the least worst of them, so they peddle the notion that they overcome such dreary realities such as they’ve seemingly done in their own real lives. Celebrity is a lucrative industry into itself because it sells something people will always want, a vicarious experience of a life unconstrained by carpooling the kids to school and hearing rumors of lay-offs around the water cooler and coming home to a spouse who’s not aging as well as hoped and sitting on the couch to watch whatever’s on the tube, and the profit margins are high because you don’t have to produce anything real. Politics is a pretty lucrative business, too, especially if you have the same ethics as the average celebrity, but its results are always all too tangible.
People used to be fond of saying that “politics is the art of the possible,” but at this point in our popular culture, when one can be any race or sex or species of their choosing, and the conspiracies about a cabal of shape-shifting reptilian Jesuits and Jews and Masons and future presidential nominee Lady Gaga are part of an Illumnati that’s running everything are gaining wide currency, the idea that some things just aren’t possible is hopelessly out of fashion. Celebrity reality will likely prevail for a while, be it the tough Trump style or the softer Winfrey variety, or heaven help us even the West and Rock kind, but real reality always wins n the end.
They’d also say “politics is show biz for ugly people,” back in the day. We used to think that amusing and apt, but it’s no longer so funny and is also hopelessly out of date. These days politics is becoming show biz for people who haven’t aged so well despite their magical shape-shifting powers and are now too ugly or old-fashioned for show biz.

— Bud Norman

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No Refuge on the Sports Page

Throughout Monday we did our best to avoid the news. This was a difficult chore for such habitual news consumers as ourselves, but we simply couldn’t bear any exposure to what we knew would be worshipful coverage of the inauguration. Longing for the pleasant diversion of athletic derring-do and old-fashioned sportsmanship we turned instead to the sports section, but alas, it offered no refuge from scandals, bad behavior, and further evidence of America’s sad decline.
There was lingering talk of Lance Armstrong, of course. One needn’t even be a sports fan to know that Armstrong was the gritty American cyclist who whipped testicular cancer and went on to beat those snooty Europeans in a record seven Tour de France competitions, as the feat made him so famous that he starred in sneaker commercials, gave his name to a well-funded cancer charity with its very own colored ribbon, and had a much-publicized marriage to a rock star before getting a much-publicized divorce. Last week he went on a two-part Oprah special, where all properly contrite celebrities go to offer confession, and admitted it was all done with various banned drugs and medical procedures. The story involved blood transfusions, testicle amputations, Oprah, and other subjects that give us the willies, yet we read far enough to see that yet another American hero had proved too good to be true.
Armstrong’s all-too-predictable downfall jostled for space on the sports pages with the quite unpredictable saga of Manti Te’o’s imaginary dead girlfriend. Those who follow college football will recall how Te’o, a soft-spoken yet fearsome linebacker for the University of Notre Dame’s legendary squad, was shaken by the deaths of both his beloved grandmother and his eerily perfect girlfriend on the same day yet somehow found the inner strength to lead his team to an upset victory over Michigan State just moments later. It was a mawkish tale even by the cornball standards of collegiate football, but the sports media played it to its full tear-jerking potential. Then some skeptical internet scoops discovered that the girlfriend never existed, and that the highly-paid sports press had fallen for an appealing myth with the same willing gullibility of their colleagues on the political beat, and now Te’o is the focus of so much ridicule that if you type his name into a search engine “jokes” is one of the automatic suggestions. We have no desire to pile on this thoroughly tackled young man, who is said to be a sensitive soul, and who might even be another victim of the hoax, somehow, but we will note that it’s a sad day when a big time college football star can’t find what Robert Goulet would call “a real, live girl.”
The professional footballers have gone a few weeks without killing anyone, so far as we know, but they remain as obnoxious as ever. One of the Baltimore Ravens’ star players celebrated the team’s hard-fought victory of the New England Patriots by accusing the defeated foe of arrogance, for instance, and described them with a word which is commonly used in locker rooms but prohibited here. The description might very well be apt, but it pains us to see athletes stoop the same sort of disrespectful trash-talking we have come to expect from our politicians.
Politics also intruded onto the sports pages with the latest news about Phil Mickelson, golf’s lovable “Lefty,” who announced that his touring schedule will likely be affected the new soak-the-rich tax code. Numerous professional triumphs and an affable appeal as a pitchman have made him Mickelson one of the rich, and by his accounting he’ll be paying as much as 63 percent of his gross income to various levels of government under the new rules, so it might prove more profitable for him to play less golf. Mickelson is a rich white guy who attained his immense wealth by playing a rich white guy’s game, and even someone with his marketable likeability is making himself an inviting target for the culture’s prevailing class resentments by speaking out about his tax burden, so his statements are as daring as some of his famed trick shots from the rough. Typical of what Mickelson can expect is a report at the all-powerful ESPN sports network, which somehow finds reason to wedge admiring references to the president into the most apolitical sports events, wherein the unabashedly disgusted correspondent seems to believe the government is entitled everything “Lefty” earns and that he should be grateful for whatever he is left with.
We applaud Mickelson’s stand, with the same enthusiasm we cheered his first Master’s victory, and hope that he’ll get people to thinking about how the new tax rates might similarly discourage other people from doing something even more important than golf. This is unlikely, of course, as some new sports scandal will soon divert the public’s attention from such complicated political matters. We’ll soon be back to the political pages, though, as this sports stuff is simply too dispiriting.

— Bud Norman