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3Qs: From Tinseltown to Public Office

Having expressed an interest in running for elective office—perhaps as a Republican candidate in the 2013 New York City mayor’s race—actor Kelsey Grammer may be the latest celebrity hoping to cross over to the world of politics. We asked Alan Schroeder, journalism professor and author of “Celebrity-in-Chief: How Show Business Took Over the White House” to weigh in on the history of celebrities who run for office and analyze the advantages they have over traditional candidates.

Can celebrity candidates be taken seriously, or do voters tend to view them with skepticism?

Celebrity candidates have a tendency to want to start at the top, rather than paying their dues and learning politics from the ground up. In this way, fame creates a sense of entitlement that may turn off the electorate. On the other hand, their lack of practical experience can also be viewed as a positive, given voters’ cynicism toward career politicians these days. Much depends on the individual celebrity and his or her background. The smart ones will make a gradual transition into politics, thus allowing the public to get comfortable with the rebranding.

What advantages do celebrities have over traditional candidates?

The key advantage is name recognition. Only a handful of politicians achieve the level of fame that TV and movie stars routinely enjoy. Celebrity candidates, such as Kelsey Grammer, also have the luxury of operating with complete financial independence. He has so much money that he can devote himself full-time to campaigning, without the fund-raising headaches that traditional candidates must face and without selling himself out to special-interest groups.

Who was the first celebrity–turned–public servant, and might the trend continue?

The obvious name that springs to mind is Ronald Reagan, who was elected governor of California in 1966 after a 30-year Hollywood career. However, two years before that, Californians elected a different actor, the song-and-dance man George Murphy, to the U.S. Senate. Interestingly, both Reagan and Murphy had served stints as presidents of the Screen Actors Guild, which gave them valuable political experience before they ran for office. In the years since, there have been dozens of celebrity candidates, mostly from the worlds of entertainment and sports, and they’ve included Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California. These candidates have had varying levels of success. But there’s no reason to believe the trend won’t continue—if anything, considering the public fascination with celebrities, it will probably intensify.

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