Entry from November 23, 2009

In today’s New York Times, Ross Douthat notes some similarities between Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee, not least the fact that

both faced the same post-election choice. Did they want to take their newfound eminence seriously? Or did they want to cash in on their celebrity? For Palin, the serious path required at least serving out her term as governor before returning to the national stage. For Huckabee, it could have involved anything from starting a think tank to running for the Senate in 2010. For both, it would have meant wedding their political identity to ideas as well as attitudes. So far, they’ve chosen celebrity instead. . . .Nobody should begrudge them their choices. Think tanks are a snooze; Senate races are a grind. Signing autographs for your adoring fans is more fun than rounding up budget votes in Juneau. But they were the wrong moves if either wanted to become president someday.

This remains to be seen, I would have thought. Barack Obama, whom Greg Sheridan of The Australian rightly described at the time of his election as “the first pure celebrity presidential candidate,” has demonstrated that celebrity merely as such is no longer any bar to someone who aspires to the presidency. John McCain thought it was last year when he compared Mr Obama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, but this didn’t work. People didn’t seem to mind anymore if their president could be plausibly compared to vapid celebrities. But there are two differences between President Obama on the one hand and Mrs Palin or Mr Huckabee on the other that may be relevant here. One is that a celebrity Republican president may well still be a non-starter where a celebrity Democrat is not on account of the latter’s ability to rely on the media, the great celebrity-maker, to stand behind him and refuse to join in the anti-celebrity ridicule. The other difference is that, after four or eight years of a celebrity president, another celebrity may be the last thing anyone in America wants next time.

Rather surprisingly, Mr Douthat believes President Obama shows how “it’s possible to be a celebrity and a serious politician at the same time,” adding that “Obama’s celebrity status is frequently a political liability, and he’s (usually) wise enough to know it. That’s why he plays the wonk as often as he plays the global icon.” Some examples would be nice here, but I can’t think of any. I don’t think he’s ever wise enough to know it. As Mark Steyn noted over the weekend, “whenever the President’s not talking about himself, he sounds like he’s wandered vaguely off-message.” As for his wonkishness, the example Mr Douthat doesn’t mention is that of Newt Gingrich, who quit politics not for conventional celebrity, exactly, but for what he regarded as a higher kind of fame as sage, teacher and guru, in short, an “intellectual” — something that also (and for good reason) has always been a problem for those with ambitions for political office, let alone the presidency. And the presidential ambitions for 2012 that Newt is rumored to be harboring seem at least as improbable as Sarah Palin’s or Mike Huckabee’s. President Obama’s playing the wonk is actually part of his celebrity schtick, as it was Bill Clinton’s before him, but he is wise enough to know that the media will allow him to get away with what (probably) no Republican ever could.

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