Entry from June 8, 2009

Reuters reports that Barack Obama “is the first sitting head of state to make the Forbes Celebrity 100 Power List, with his many magazine covers and best-selling books blurring the line between politics and celebrity.” Former President Bill Clinton has made the list several times, but only since leaving office. The rankings are determined by a combination of income and press coverage, which explains why the leader of the free world and a man so celebrated and admired throughout the free and non-free world alike should only make it to number 49 on the Forbes list, whose number one slot is occupied by Angelina Jolie. The list is also remarkable, by the way, for giving its four top spots to women for the first time, as just behind Miss Jolie come Oprah Winfrey, Madonna and Beyoncé. Maybe there’s a little “blurring the line between politics and celebrity” going on there too.

Meanwhile, Michael Wolff in Vanity Fair claims that the wizards of the Obama press operation “are in greater control of the media than any administration before them”and dominate the mainstream media at least partly because of “the personal insecurity on the part of members of the incredible shrinking press — their days are numbered and they know it.” The exception to the rule of media decline is the celebrity media, and Mr Wolff has an interesting take on them:

Arguably, the celebrity press came into existence and has grown with such force as a reflection of America’s disenchantment with and lack of interest in politics and politicians. Civic life lost its connection to popular culture. Until Obama. Now, in the hierarchy of celebrities, nobody ranks as high, or is as cover-worthy, as the president and his family. Inside Edition, the syndicated tabloid show which specializes in the frothiest celebrity news and goriest celebrity scandals, now looks for an Obama angle on whatever story it’s pursuing. “Any story gets hotter if you’ve got Obama in it,” says a producer on the show. As for Michelle Obama, she may seem to be everywhere — the most revered and omnipresent woman in the land — but this is in fact a function of her lack of availability. The First Lady appears in public only about three days a week. Exclusivity and unattainability make the brand. Indeed, the efforts at control — negotiating all the nuances of celebrity coverage — by the White House press team are pretty much at the levels of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

Maybe that’s why, then, the mainstream media fawn over the First Family in the way that they do — they are trying to ape the celebrity media, which are the only part of the business which is still able to sell its product to enough people to make money from it.

Assume this is true, for the moment, though I’m not sure that it is. It certainly is the case that, as the Forbes list suggests and as I have argued before, President Obama is our first celebrity president. If so, it would make sense to try to predict the future course of his relationship with the media by looking at the way they ordinarily treat celebrities, and here the name of Susan Boyle may occur to some. Here is what India Knight wrote about her in yesterday’s London Sunday Times:

There has never been a plainer example of “ordinary” people projecting their “ordinary” desires onto someone who is perhaps even more “ordinary” than they are — the kind of people whom no one looks at twice in the street. For them, Boyle was an especial heroine but her appeal was broad: she reminded people of fairy tales, of miraculous transformations, of parables about the meek: suddenly, we could all see beneath the larval exterior to the bee-yoo-tiful wings beating underneath. I cried when I first watched her on YouTube. Boyle, who never asked to embody anything, spoke to a very deep, inchoate longing in people which I suppose, sappily enough, is to do with truth, perseverance, inner beauty and redemption through art. And then, inevitably, it all went wrong. Someone decided that a good nickname for Boyle was “the hairy angel”, as though she were a Victorian freakshow exhibit instead of a woman who, like millions of others in this country, doesn’t much bother with tweezers and is perhaps a stranger to the Hollywood wax. Over a few short weeks — Boyle’s first appearance on [Britain’s Got Talent] was on April 11 — the public, in the public’s strange and revolting tricoteuses-like way, decided they’d had their fun and it was now time to give her a good kicking. Why? Oh, you know. Because she didn’t seem grateful or ’umble enough, because she wiggled her hips, because it was Tuesday . . . the usual. Because they could.

Those who follow British politics will be aware that Ms. Knight’s piece appeared at the same time that the British prime minister, Mr Gordon Brown, was getting the most tremendous kicking from the media there, and I wondered if there could be any connection. He, too, had a remarkable honeymoon period with the media two years ago, as everyone was so tired of Tony Blair — who himself had, ten years earlier, anticipated the Obama phenomenon by taking on some of the qualities of the rock star or celebrity to an adoring media. Of course, they turned on Blair eventually, and now have turned on Brown and are abusing him routinely, both personally and politically, every single day to the point where even I, who have always disliked the man, wonder if there isn’t something to be said for him.

But the media engage in personal destruction in his case, as in that of poor Miss Boyle, because they can. Is it possible to imagine that, some day, our superhero-like President, whom Evan Thomas of Newsweek recently called “sort of God” might be subject to the same treatment? It will be interesting to see, anyway, how long he remains “sort of God.”

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