Thursday, January 22, 2009

Obama is not America’s first celebrity president

There already was a fine line between being a politician and being a celebrity, but President Barack Obama has just erased it.

If the millions of people who turned the National Mall into a giant mosh pit during Tuesday’s inaugural ceremonies weren’t evidence enough, you only have to look to the thousands more who filled stadiums last year to hear candidate Obama speak. It’s difficult to tell the difference between a politician and a rock star when you have people fainting in the audience.

You may chalk that up to “hope” or “change you can believe in,” but more likely it’s simply the culmination of the obvious: Presidential elections have, for a long time, been mostly high-stakes popularity contests. Instead of getting a recording contract, you get to be the most powerful man in the world.

William Henry Harrison won the election of 1840 with the help of a song, “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.” The song’s title doubled as his campaign slogan. Even back then, branding was everything, although it helped that the Democrats that year were too busy beating up each other to worry about Harrison and the Whig Party.

Franklin Pierce won the election of 1852 in a landslide, aided in part by a campaign biography written by his old pal and college roommate Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose novel “The Scarlet Letter” has tortured high school students for decades. Say what you will about Pierce’s presidency, his political propaganda had the best pedigree ever. The closest President Obama could come to topping that was writing two autobiographies of his own.

Even if he isn’t the first celebrity president, President Obama has played the part better than any of his predecessors — although I have heard that President James Buchanan could really tell a joke. He even has suggested CNN medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta as the nation’s surgeon general. What’s next? “America’s Most Wanted” host John Walsh as FBI director?

One thing is certain. The new president is well on his way to being the most commercialized public figure since Elvis Presley. You can’t watch television without being bombarded by advertisements for Obama commemorative plates and laser-dyed Obama coins. That’s in addition to the ubiquitous T-shirts, posters and tote bags. Can velvet paintings of the commander in chief be far behind?

But it gets stranger. The New York Times found Obama hot sauce, Obama soap and even Obama toilet paper, which is just decorative because the ink on the paper is toxic. What would Surgeon General Gupta have to say about that? Nothing good, I bet.

Then it gets downright insane. If a T-shirt isn’t enough of a statement, you can always wear the Obama thong, although hopefully not in public. And then, the Times reported, there is the Obama sex toy, which, given recent federal court decisions, is illegal under Alabama law, unless used for a legitimate medical purpose, whatever that means.

The world hasn’t seen such a marketing blitz since George Lucas unleashed the first batch of “Star Wars” lunchboxes and bed sheets.

At this rate, how long will it be before presidential elections are determined by text messaging, just like “American Idol” winners are? Some people have already proposed allowing Americans to vote for president via the Internet, which isn’t much different.

Other countries have the same idea. According to The Hollywood Reporter, “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek will soon be back in his native Canada to host a reality show called “Canada’s Next Prime Minister.” Will the winner become a serious contender? Who knows? But the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. has already licensed the show’s format to the BBC, so Great Britain won’t be far behind.

When voters start following candidates from campaign stop to campaign stop — like fans following the Grateful Dead — we’ll know the age of celebrity presidents has truly arrived.

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