Celebrity Politicians Are Nothing New in America

Angelo Franco


On Palm Sunday in 1938, W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel was hosting his radio show from Fort Worth, Texas, when he asked his listeners: “Should I run for governor?” O’Daniel professed that a blind man had written to him saying that Texas needed to kick out “professional politicians” and instead elect a governor who was of and for the people, trustworthy, and a good Christian.


Three weeks later, O’Daniel announced that he was running in the Democratic primary for governor (this was before the Republican and Democratic parties had switched platforms). Using the Ten Commandments as his platform and with the slogan “Pass the biscuits, Pappy!,” O’Daniel came ahead of 11 rivals to secure the Democratic nomination and in January of 1939,  thousands of Texans came to see “Pappy” being sworn in as the 34th governor of the the Lone Star state.


O’Daniel’s governorship marked what is probably the first instance of a “celebrity” turning to politics in America. Celebrity status back then was restricted to the mediums of television and radio. By the mid-1930s, O’Daniel was a beloved radio presenter and a household name in Texas, and he provided what was apparently a much-needed change in the Texan political landscape. Yearning for something new, Texans voted O’Daniel into the office of governor twice.


And celebrity politicians are not only nothing new, they’re also not uniquely American. The Philippines has a substantial list of celebrities turned politicians, one of the most famous being Joseph Estrada. A prolific film actor who starred in over 100 films, Estrada successfully ran for president of the Philippines in 1998. India, not to be bested, boasts an impressive list of celebrity politicians, and the practice is so common that there’s an ongoing joke among fans of Indian celebrities that the next logical step for any successful movie star is to turn to politics.


But America’s relationship with celebrity politicians, which dates back to more than half a century, is one that is deeply rooted in the all-American belief that all politicians will be just that: politicians. This was exemplified, of course, not so long ago during the contentious 2016 presidential elections. It wasn’t only Republicans who rebuffed the establishment by nominating and eventually electing as president a reality television personality with no political experience; Democrats, too, saw a brief but powerful insurgency when Bernie Sanders became a dangerous contender and gained a cult following of voters, who were presumably rejecting the institution that the Clinton political dynasty represented. 


Our current glaring example aside, perhaps some of the most recognizable celebrity politicians in America have been President Ronald Reagan and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Though it must be noted that Reagan’s celebrity may not have helped him secure the White House, but the governorship of California instead.



A liberal New Deal Democrat during his youth, Reagan became a moderately successful Hollywood actor where he polished his “good boy” characters in B-film westerns. After eventually switching parties in the 60s, Reagan secured the Republican nomination and served for two terms. This is most likely what lent him the political clout and national recognition to boast of his experience when he ran for the presidency, even after his first two attempts were unsuccessful. Reagan also helped move the political center more towards the right, and his governorship was a good display of the rise of populism.


However, classifying “populism” can be dodgy at best, certainly within the context of celebrity politicians, if only because not all celebrities are inherently populists. There is no telling for sure if Mark Zuckerberg or Oprah, for example, would run as populists if they ever fancy to hold public office (as opposed to Oprah running as a liberal à la Bernie Sanders, which is more likely; and Zuckerberg… the jury is still out on that one). Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger was as centrist as they come, though his campaign and eventual election are prime examples of celebrities using their fame and recognition as powerful tools within their platforms.


When “The Arnold” ran for governor, Californians were deeply unhappy with the leadership at the time. So much so, that Democratic governor Gray Davis was recalled and ousted from office. Constituents were reeling from the electricity crisis that had gripped the state as well as a budget stagnancy created, in part, by the bust that was the dot-com bubble. The recall procedure in California does not require primary elections. Instead, any person who collects 65 signatures and pays the filing fee could run for office.


This meant that, in true California fashion, the race for governor was really a bit of a circus. One-hundred-thirty-five candidates, from all walks of life, were crammed in the ballot. Former child star Gary Coleman was a contender, as was 101-year-old Mathilda Spak as a write-in candidate—her major supporters were 99 Cents Only Store shareholders, who fronted her the $3,500 filing fee. The most upwardly mobile Greek since Icarus, Ariana Huffington, also entered the race as an independent, as did adult film actress Mary Carey who would go on, more than a decade later, to nominate herself to be Donald Trump’s running mate in a NSFW photo shoot. Former Republican congressman Michael Huffington, meanwhile, who had revealed he was bisexual after his divorce from Ariana in 1997, announced he would not run for governor and publicly endorsed Republican candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger.


In the midst of this carnival-like election process, Schwarzenegger used his celebrity status to embark on a campaign tour on board his “Total Recall” bus, a cheeky name that served the double purpose of evoking his hit action film and to poke fun at the all but inevitable recall that Governor Davis was facing (how perfect!). Using a true populist approach, Schwarzenegger asserted in campaign ads that politicians were not doing their jobs. And in a stunning display of ironic foreshadowing, he ran under the slogan “Let’s bring California back,” presumably as another cheeky allusion to his famous one-liner from the Terminator film.


The parallels can be striking: only five days before election day, the Los Angeles Times broke the story that at least six women were alleging Schwarzenegger had groped and humiliated them sexually. In October 7, 2003, Davis was successfully ousted and Schwarzenegger won the race for governor of California, with 43 percent of women voting for him.



Throughout U.S. history, there has been a substantial number of celebrities who have made a bid to hold public office, some successful and some not. Shirley Temple lost a primary race in California for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives; retired professional wrestler Jesse Ventura was the governor of Minnesota and served as the mayor of Brooklyn Park before that; Clay Aiken ran for a congressional seat in a North Carolina district, which he lost; and Clint Eastwood was the mayor of Carmel, California, in the '80s.


This trend may appear somewhat asinine. What would drive celebrities to go into politics when they already have wealth, recognition, and a strong following? But all those elements prove to be helpful when running for office, which is why politics may seem like a logical next step. While campaigning, politicians strive to make a connection with their constituents, to become recognizable, and to drive their market value up as someone noteworthy. Celebrities already enjoy all of those things, so it may be easier for them to accumulate votes.


Part of running a campaign is also acting the part, and actors can be pretty good at that. Celebrities can have more talent in front of audiences, generally; and they may be more apt to deal with scandals more deftly, in part because the public assumes that scandals are simply part of their lives. Reagan himself was a skilled performer who used a combination of theatrics and performance in radio and television pseudo-events to basically play the part of a president.


Yet, these same useful assets may prove to be a double-edged sword because celebrity, inevitably, brings scrutiny. Al Franken, for example, was a widely popular senator before he resigned when a photograph surfaced. The photograph had been taken three years before he became a U.S. senator, when Franken was touring the world doing comedy sketches and promoting his books. The picture depicts Franken in a military plane, smiling mischievously to the camera, as he gropes—or is about to grope, or is pretending to grope—radio host Leeann Tweeden’s breasts while she slept. And while Franken’s actions were certainly reprehensible and the backlash was well-founded and well-placed, it’s hard to imagine if the photograph would have seen the light of day if Franken had not been a high-profile comedian before his time in the Senate (or, shortsightedly, if he had been in any position to have been part of such a scenario in the first place).


And if Americans have proven anything over the past 15 years is that they are fickle voters, if something is to be taken from the many unsuccessful bids for office of celebrities-would-be-politicians. Voters, it turns out, also don’t particularly like when celebrities run for office, at least in America. In fact, most people believe that celebrities shouldn’t get involved in politics at all, even to offer endorsements.  Sixty-three percent of those polled believe that celebrities are out of touch with the average American; even if some of them had modest upbringings or rose from poverty, people believe that celebrities now live within a bubble of wealth and fame and are therefore removed from the struggles of middle-class America. Others believe that, while celebrities can get involved in politics, they shouldn’t push specific agendas or tell people how to vote.


This is perhaps the biggest hurdle that Cynthia Nixon had to overcome when she unsuccessfully challenged Andrew Cuomo for governorship of New York. Nixon was born in New York City and was raised by a single mother in a one-bedroom apartment in the Upper West Side, where she attended a New York City public school. And while she had never held public office before she challenged Cuomo, she had been a political activist for many years on issues that New Yorkers would seemingly care about, such as LGBT rights, education, and women’s rights. Yet, while Trump’s lack of political experience seemed to be an asset, Nixon was called a neophyte with no skills to lead. Though this comparison is probably unfair; Nixon was, after all, fighting an uphill battle with Cuomo’s political experience, family legacy (his father Mario was a three-term governor of New York), and $30 million budget. Besides, Cuomo is generally well-liked, even when his popularity is at a record low. But then we have Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez challenging Joe Crowley, so who knows what voters really want, after all.



Then there’s also the indelible fact that sometimes celebrities simply do not make good politicians. In 1987 Ilona Staller was elected to the Italian parliament. A former porn actress who used the stage name “La Cicciolina” (loosely, Little Tubby Woman), she was once married to Jeff Koons and had a proclivity to deliver political speeches with one of her breasts exposed. Staller infamously offered to sleep with Saddam Hussein at the outset of the Gulf War in exchange for world peace and to resolve the crisis in the Middle East. She was not reelected when her term was up in 1991. Following charges of corruption, Joseph Estrada became the first Asian president to be impeached after a congressional debate that reportedly lasted just five minutes. Nevertheless, in a political comeback that would make Roy Moore jealous, Estrada now serves as the mayor of Manila. 


On his part, O’Daniel was an ineffective governor. He did not raise the old-age pension or abolish the poll tax and the sales tax, as his campaign had promised. He did, however, have a penchant for blaming everyone else for the fact that he never did anything—from the media to other politicians to his fellow state legislators—especially during his radio show, which he continued to host throughout his governorship. He was known for submitting legislation that he knew would not pass: O’Daniel blamed legislators for defeating his pension plan, even though he refused to raise taxes to pay for it; his measure to limit taxes on oil and gas forever (yes, forever), which would have required an amendment to the state constitution, also did not make the cut and his legislators got the blame for that as well. As a senator, he campaigned against civil rights and against pro-trade unions. He scorned the “communist-controlled New Deal” and demanded the “restoration of the supremacy of the white race.” 


O’Daniel retired after his second term as U.S. senator but then tried to run for governor twice more, losing both times. Whether voters learned from their mistakes or were simply weary of another celebrity-turned-politician is hard to tell, given who currently sits in the Oval Office. Because “Pappy” O’Daniel, the radio superstar who was as close to a celebrity as America had back then and as abortive a leader as they come, was indeed elected to the U.S. senate not once but twice.  


Author Bio:


Angelo Franco is Highbrow Magazine’s chief features writer.


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