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“The Irony Of Celebrity Populism”: The Demolition Of The Line Between Celebrity And Political Achievement

“When you become famous,” the famous political consultant James Carville once said, “being famous becomes your profession.”

It’s a sign of the stunning success of Donald Trump’s crossover act that we no longer even think about this campaign’s most revolutionary effect on our politics: the demolition of the line between celebrity and political achievement.

Of course, success in politics can itself breed celebrity. Carville earned his by combining his eccentric sense of humor with actual skill in helping Bill Clinton become president in 1992. The weird interaction between glitz and government reflected at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner suggests how much the borderland between the two has shrunk.

But celebrity has never before been a sufficient qualification for the nation’s highest office. Consider John McCain’s signature attack on Barack Obama in 2008 in a commercial that began with the words: “He’s the biggest celebrity in the world.” The ad’s next line captured the old war hero’s disdain for his opponent and his fame: “But is he ready to lead?”

In light of this year’s campaign, there is something touching about McCain’s protest. He reasoned that sober voters would reject the idea of electing someone merely because of his celebrity.

If the ad misunderstood the sources of Obama’s political strength, it did speak to a nation that still respected experience in government. Trump has now far surpassed Obama in converting fame directly into electoral currency, moving from celebrity to front-runner status without going through the messy, time-consuming work of being a state legislator and U.S. senator. Ronald Reagan, given his Hollywood standing, may be the closest historical analogue to Trump. But Trump did not spend eight years as governor of a large state. There is a perverse purity to Trump’s great leap.

Trump also uses celebrity allies he accumulated in the course of his career as a fame-monger to validate his quest. Facing a decisive challenge in Tuesday’s Indiana primary, Trump hauled out an endorsement from Bobby Knight, a state icon from his successful if controversial run as Indiana University’s basketball coach. Trump may dominate CNN, MSNBC and Fox News, but Knight has ESPN, generally a much bigger draw — except, of course, when Trump has been on a debate stage.

Trump represents the triumph in politics of what the scholars of postmodernism call “transgressive” art, which violates boundaries, including moral strictures, and commands attention through its shock value. Trump is now the transgressor in chief.

We need to think hard about the multiple weaknesses Trump is exposing in our politics. How has he been able to convert fame and outrage into votes without even a moment of apprenticeship in public service?

One reason is the anger in a large segment of the Republican Party that has been stoked by its leaders. You might say they have now lost control of the beast they were feeding. There is also the utter contempt toward government that their ideology encouraged. Trump has played on the fragility of our media system, which, in its search for ratings, can’t get enough of him, and on a pervasive pain among the many who have been cast aside by our economy. They had been ignored by elites of all kinds.

Trump is what passes for “populism” now, but celebrity populism is a strange creature. Consider the case of Tom Brady, the masterly quarterback of my beloved New England Patriots and another sports celebrity who has spoken kindly of Trump.

In a court ruling against him in the “Deflategate” case, Brady learned that neither wealth nor celebrity nor talent protects him in a National Football League system that, in the view of two of three Court of Appeals judges, confers almost unlimited power to management over labor.

Yes, at that moment, Brady learned he was labor. “Welcome to the working class, Tom,” wrote Boston Herald sports columnist Ron Borges.

I don’t know if this controversy will alter Brady’s politics. But it was a reminder of how structural realities that rarely get much television time — collective bargaining agreements, judicial decisions, ownership rights and the raw distribution of power — will not be swept away simply because a man who has mastered old and new media alike has succeeded so brilliantly in casting himself as the avenger for the dispossessed.

Still, a phony celebrity populism plays well on television at a time when politics and governing are regularly trashed by those who claim both as their calling. Politicians who don’t want to play their assigned roles make it easy for a role-player to look like the real thing and for a billionaire who flies around on his own plane to look like a populist.

 

By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, May 1, 2016

May 2, 2016 Posted by | Celebrity, Donald Trump, Politics, Populism | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Shaky Allegation Unsupported By Facts”: The Media Chase Hillary, Time And ‘Times’ Again

At the expense of pedantry, here’s how a serious newspaper covers an important story: “Tom Brady hearing transcript details judge’s comments to NFL, NFLPA,” reads the Boston Globe headline.

Datelined New York, the August 21 article states that Judge Richard M. Berman “put immense pressure on the NFL.” It quotes him telling the league its punishment of the Patriots quarterback in “Deflategate” constitutes a “quantum leap” from the evidence.

The byline establishes that Globe reporters were there in the courtroom. Indeed, the online version contains a link to the full hearing transcript.

(As an aside, this column’s readers can’t say nobody warned them about the shaky evidence and shoddy reasoning behind this overblown affair.)

Now then: Let’s move to the apparently far less significant question of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s fabled email account. I say that because a recent New York Times account of a different federal judge’s statement supposedly about that account bears few indicators of real journalism.

Indeed, if one were of a low and suspicious nature regarding the Times’ historically inept Washington bureau, one might suspect yet another example of the “Clinton Rules” — that is, a shaky allegation unsupported by facts.

Like a recent wildly inaccurate Times article on the same topic, the story carried Michael Schmidt’s byline. The headline of Schmidt’s original July 23 piece was “Criminal Inquiry Sought In Clinton’s Use of Email.”

Except, oops, there was no criminal investigation, nor was Hillary Clinton directly involved in what amounted to an argument between the CIA and State Department over retroactively classifying information — to wit, how many Clinton emails the State Department planned to release needed to be withheld from public scrutiny under today’s circumstances.

After being forced to retract virtually the entire article in a piecemeal process its own public editor, Margaret Sullivan, characterized as “to put it mildly, a mess,” Times editors pinned the blame on anonymous sources they wouldn’t identify. They vowed to be more cautious.

“Losing the story to another news outlet would have been a far, far better outcome,” Sullivan wrote “than publishing an unfair story and damaging the Times’ reputation for accuracy.”

Soon afterward, the public editor said she agreed with a reader who argued that the newspaper needed to make “a promise to readers going forward that Hillary is not going to be treated unfairly as she so often is by the media.”

Fast forward to another Schmidt opus that moved on the wire at 3:36 AM on the night of August 21. I read it in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette under the headline: “Judge: Clinton Didn’t Heed Email Policies.”

Datelined “Washington,” the story claimed that U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan “said of Hillary Clinton’s email use that ‘we wouldn’t be here today if the employee had followed government policy,’ according to two people who attended the hearing.”

Two anonymous sources, that is.

The article quoted Tom Fitton, the president of Judicial Watch, a right-wing group suing the State Department for access to Clinton aide Huma Abedin’s private emails, chastising Hillary. It didn’t stipulate how the former Secretary, not a party to the lawsuit, came to be mentioned. Schmidt added that Judge Sullivan was appointed by President Bill Clinton — although a glance at Wikipedia shows that he was initially a Reagan protégé later promoted by George H.W. Bush.

It’s not supposed to matter.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the hard copy New York Times later that morning. Schmidt’s story underwent significant editorial changes. Two anonymous sources were replaced by no sources. “A federal judge on Thursday said,” the story began. The Judicial Watch guy disappeared. Judge Sullivan was no longer a Clinton appointee.

More significantly, the “Washington” dateline was replaced by no dateline.

Basically, the Times told us the judge said something, but contrary to Journalism 101, didn’t say how they knew it or why he said it. Pretending that a reporter attended the hearing when he didn’t, however, would be far worse. Hence, I suspect, the disappearing dateline.

We’re to take it on faith.

Sorry, no sale. As Huckleberry Finn said, “I been there before.”

Actually, “the employee” would be an odd way for a federal judge to refer to the Secretary of State — a cabinet appointee and fourth in line for the presidency — not to mention that everybody from The Wall Street Journal, to Newsweek, CNN and, yes, The New York Times have reported that Clinton’s private email setup was consistent with State Department rules.

So I’m thinking former Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-CA) got it right on Fox News Sunday. “Judge Sullivan’s extraneous remark was about something completely different,” she said “and it was about something going on with somebody else, an employee.”

So it looks like another big hurry, another big screwup.

If the presidential race is as important as the Super Bowl, maybe the Times should show us the transcript.

 

By: Gene Lyons, Featured Post, The National Memo, August 26, 2015

August 27, 2015 Posted by | Clinton Emails, Hillary Clinton | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“For The Patriots, Without Apology”: Even Though Loyalties Can Be Misplaced, A Life Lived Without Them Makes No Sense

I never knew how much fun it was to be loyal to a hated outlaw sports team until the whole world came down on my dear New England Patriots.

Having rooted over the years for Boston teams that many felt sorry for — God help us — and found psychologically interesting, it was a rush to hear MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough the other morning describe my Patriots as a “ruthless killing machine.” Wow!

It’s a long way from the early days of the quarterback-wide receiver combination of Babe Parilli and Gino Cappelletti (he was also a great kicker). Back then, many didn’t even take the upstart American Football League seriously. As a kid, I insisted on being faithful to our local guys, so I’ve been a Pats fan from the day they were created.

And I now understand far better what life is like for those who work as spinmeisters. In a fight like this, you look for whatever arguments come to hand and judge their merits later, in a quiet room with fellow fans.

If those footballs were deflated, why didn’t the refs, who handled them dozens of times, notice? Maybe the balls lost air. Besides, didn’t you catch the fact that Tom Brady did far better with the regulation, non-deflated balls in the second half of the Indianapolis Colts game? And anyway, everybody messes with the football, right?

All Patriots fans are Taylor Swift partisans these days: “The haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate.” She didn’t invent the line, but many loyalists are using her buoyant and defiant lyrics to shake off the Pats’ critics as jealous souls who just can’t stand this team’s dominance in the long Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era.

Already, I can imagine the sighs of impatience from those who think loyalty to professional sports teams is a silly and even pernicious waste of energy. Aren’t they just a bunch of businesses owned by rich guys who use them to make more money and stroke their already large egos by paying a share of that cash to athletes, some of whom get wealthy themselves? Didn’t we see what a moral mess the National Football League made of the Ray Rice affair?

And isn’t loyalty itself a questionable virtue that can lead people to overlook many ethical issues and to ignore more important moral callings?

On the last question, I share what the 19th-century philosopher Josiah Royce called a “loyalty to loyalty.” Of course loyalty can be misplaced, as Royce acknowledged. “A family engaged in a murderous feud, a pirate crew, a savage tribe, a Highland robber clan of the old days — these might constitute causes to which somebody has been, or is, profoundly loyal,” Royce wrote, and he agreed that such relationships are problematic.

But even though loyalties can be misplaced, a life lived without them makes no sense. They are defined by the legal scholar George Fletcher in his fine book Loyalty as obligations “implied in every person’s sense of being historically rooted in a set of defining familial, institutional, and national relationships.” There really are, he argues, “groups and individuals that have entered into our sense of who we are.”

For many, sports teams become part of this fabric, usually through powerful regional ties (I really do love New England), bonds of friendship (only a fellow fan could understand what it felt like to lose the 2008 Super Bowl to the Giants, or to win the “Snow Bowl” against the Raiders in 2002), and the draw of history (see everything above).

Do the owners of these teams exploit such feelings? You bet, which is why fans feel so outraged and betrayed when a team gets moved from one place to another. But is there anything intrinsically wrong with their loyalties, or with the admiration of fans for heroism in an athletic encounter involving “their” team? I don’t think so.

Given such strong sentiments, the people who own these teams have an obligation to stewardship that they don’t always discharge. Even as a profoundly loyal Patriots fan, I’d be upset if the team and the league simply threw a locker room attendant under the bus to get out of their problem. Loyalty runs both ways, and it most certainly extends to the locker room attendant. (And if he did deflate 11 balls in 90 seconds, he should have been in the Pro Bowl.)

But I know which side I’ll be on this Sunday, without any mental reservations. The Patriots, including the attendant, are my guys.

 

By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post; The National Memo, January 29, 2015

February 1, 2015 Posted by | National Football League, New England Patriots, Super Bowl | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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