Republican Presidential nominee Sen. John McCain talks to David Lettermen on the Late Show with David Letterman, Tuesday April 1, 2008 on the CBS Television Network. (CBS/John Paul Filo)
If Barack Obama gave new meaning to the term “political celebrity,” then John McCain helped define it.
He emerged as the most popular Republican in Hollywood following his 2000 presidential primary defeat, winning more screen time than the rest of Congress combined. McCain made cameos in “Wedding Crashers” and “24,” saw his memoir turned into a popular biopic on A&E, and appeared more than 30 times on late night comedy shows.
So this week, when McCain cast Obama’s celebrity as a disqualifier, it seemed like a curious turn.
Just one day before McCain released an advertisement interspersing pictures of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears with footage of Obama addressing 200,000 people in Berlin, actor Jon Voight told Variety that McCain had “many great, intelligent, talented Academy-winning actors standing by, awaiting a major press conference to show their support.”
“[The ad] is a bit ironic given that McCain has been the most pop-culture savvy Republican candidate in quite some time,” said Ted Johnson, managing editor of Variety and editor of the blog Wilshire and Washington, which monitors the intersection of celebrity and politics.
The McCain campaign continued to hammer at Obama on Friday with the release of a very sarcastic Web ad that at one point cuts to an image of Charlton Heston as Moses parting the Red Sea before posing the question: “Barack Obama may be The One, but is he ready to lead?”
The Spears-Hilton ad hits a similar note, describing Obama as “the biggest celebrity in the world.”
The Republican National Committee piled on, launching a Web site Friday called Who Said It? Celebrity Edition that features a multiple-choice quiz in which people must identify whether Obama or a celebrity made certain, often vacuous, statements.
It’s a striking line of attack for McCain, who’s accepted without complaint the “celebrity” epithet from journalists for four decades.
“John’s been a celebrity ever since he was shot down,” former McCain strategist John Weaver told The Atlantic earlier this week, “whatever that means.”
Yet, like the way fresh starlets push aside aging actors, political hot shots from years past (think former President Bill Clinton, often described as a “rock star” in his day) have been overshadowed by the newest crop of talent in this election year. This sort of churning is typical during presidential campaigns, said Matt Bennett, communications director for Gen. Wesley Clark’s 2004 presidential campaign and co-founder of Third Way, a progressive policy group.
“McCain was famous for a politician,” Bennett said. “Obama has almost transcended that, and has become famous as a famous person which is why they are comparing him to Paris Hilton.”
Since 2000, Bennett went on, McCain has enjoyed “enough fame and authority and celebrity” to aid candidates and organizations with ads that simply involve him speaking into a camera.
McCain started on the public stage with the pedigree of a family whose name graces a naval ship and a Mississippi National Guard training center.
With his father serving as a top admiral, John McCain first became a household name when he was captured in Vietnam, and even more of one upon his release five years later. The New York Times featured him on its front page. He wrote an acclaimed 12,000-word, first person account for U.S. News and World Report. President Richard Nixon feted him.
Hollywood warmed to him in 2000 as he ran against one of its least favorite people, George W. Bush. He endeared himself with liberals, including Warren Beatty, by taking unconventional stances for a Republican presidential candidate, such as favoring campaign finance reform and challenging the Christian right. His open-door approach with journalists made him the darling of the media elite.
“You can definitely makes the case that McCain stands out among Republicans for his associations with Hollywood and his celebrity status,” Johnson said. “The fact that he was in ‘Wedding Crashers,’ it underscores the fact that he does have a lot of friends in the entertainment industry that Bush can’t claim.”
In the years that followed, he became a near-regular on the late-night comedy circuit, appearing eight times on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," 12 times on the "Late Show with David Letterman," 10 times on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," and three times on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien," according to imdb.com.
He hosted "Saturday Night Live" in 2002. "Faith of My Fathers" pulled in 3.7 million viewers on A&E in 2005, making it the network’s most popular program in over a year. He appeared on “24” in 2006.
And he made a brief cameo in “Wedding Crashers,” offering congratulations to the father of the bride, a senator played by Christopher Walken.
As a then-likely Republican presidential candidate, McCain’s appearance in the film stirred a mini-controversy when the Drudge Report labeled it a “boob raunch fest.” But McCain laughed it off - during a visit on Leno’s show.
“In Washington, I work with boobs every day,” McCain joked.
McCain has received support this year from boldfaced names such as SNL creator Lorne Michaels and producer Jerry Bruckheimer. But the Republican's circle is far smaller than the one around Obama, and less robust than 2000, when lifelong Democrats including Harrison Ford and Michael Douglas signed checks for McCain.
So far, Obama has raised $4.7 million from the movie, television and music industry, while McCain has received $815,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan campaign finance group.
A liberal blog noted this week that the McCain campaign had scrubbed its website of an Associated Press story from last year that described him as a “political celebrity.”
Dismissing claims circulating in the liberal blogosphere, McCain spokesman Brian Rogers said the article was removed as part of routine housecleaning of the website several weeks ago.
But Rogers skirted the question Friday of whether he considered his candidate a political celebrity.
“John McCain is a widely respected and admired political leader in our country and the world,” Rogers said, adding that Obama is in a “different stratosphere.”
“Who else could get 200,000 people in Berlin? Those aren’t voters. Those are fans.”
The campaign, he added, was not attempting to make “celebrity” a pejorative term. “It is not a dirty word,” he said of the spot that juxtaposes Obama with Britney and Paris, calls him “the biggest celebrity in the world” and then asks, “but is he ready to lead?”
“We are celebrating his fame,” Rogers went on, “and the reality that this guy has entered Tom Cruise-type of fame.”
Bennett said the heightened sensitivity around "celebrity" was unlikely to cause a full-scale pull back from the entertainment industry by either candidate.
Indeed, on Friday night in Panama City, Fla., McCain basked in the glow of Nashville - not Hollywood - as country singer John Rich of the duo Big and Rich hosted a "Country First" concert for the presumptive nominee and debuted a new song: "Raising McCain."
Obama’s star even shines in Nashville, though - last year “Big” Kenny Alphin, the other half of the act, contributed $2300 to the Obama campaign.
By Carrie Budoff Brown
Copyright 2008 POLITICO