Al Franken is a funny guy. He is also intelligent and seems to understand the needs of his constituents. And Franken seems earnest in his desire to be a U.S. Senator. But despite all this, he should not have run for the position in the first place.
Celebrity status like Franken’s clearly has an impact on an election because it shrouds what’s most important — the issues. It gives stars an unfair advantage compared to other politicians who don’t have the same exposure to the public eye. The star power of celebrities is nearly impossible to beat, especially when the star is in public favor. Celebrities need to stay out of political office so that America can elect the best people to serve in office — not the most famous.
Franken is merely the latest in a line of celebrities who have become major politicians — a group that includes Ronald Reagan, Sonny Bono, Jesse Ventura, Jack Kemp and Arnold Schwarzenegger. And Franken is following in the footsteps of a set of civil servants who have produced uninspired results.
This is not to say Franken has no shot at becoming a good — or even great — senator. He’s an intelligent man. He graduated cum laude from Harvard in 1973 with a degree in political science. But talking and writing about politics is very different from holding political office, and only time will tell if he can be successful. And he’s going to have to break a strong trend of mediocrity that his celebrity predecessors have created.
Unfortunately, the failures of elected celebrities have yet to turn off Americans to the idea of electing them. Instead, Americans have actually come to embrace the idea of celebrities in politics. Franken is the latest proof of that, winning by the narrowest of margins in last year’s Minnesota Senate race. Franken isn’t an A-lister like the Governator or Sonny Bono, but his notoriety as an author and comedian was doubtlessly a factor in his win over incumbent senator Norm Coleman.
Ironically, Norm Coleman was no stranger to facing a celebrity in an election. Coleman lost Minnesota’s gubernatorial race to former professional wrestler Jesse Ventura in 1998. Coleman then defeated former vice president and one-time Minnesota senator Walter Mondale to win his Senate seat in 2002.
In the Senate, many considered Coleman a very capable politician. He sat on important committees, including the Committee on Foreign Relations. Coleman’s term was widely regarded as a successful one, and his work on legislation for renewable energy and rural infrastructure helped serve the needs of Minnesotans. The voters hardly had reason to remove him from office — but they did, and they replaced him with a celebrity. Something’s wrong when Coleman was able to defeat a former vice president, but not a comedian.
The first celebrity governor, Ronald Reagan, started this trend for awful celebrity politicians back in the 1960s. His star power eventually led him to run for president, where America decided that it was in fact a good idea to elect a red-scare xenophobe. Reagan eventually launched a failed defense program called “Star Wars” and advocated an inherently flawed economic system.
As expected, Ventura and Schwarzenegger’s reigns as governors have not been without controversy and criticism. The media attacked Ventura at nearly every turn for his absurd number of vetoes and odd political viewpoints. Their relentless criticism is largely considered a reason why he lasted only one term in office. And Schwarzenegger’s performance has been inconsistent at best, with his notable failure occurring when all four ballot measures he sponsored in a 2005 special election were defeated.
From Reagan to Schwarzenegger to Ventura, America has given celebrities their chance to try and positively impact government. For the most part, they’ve failed miserably. While Franken provides another chance for a celebrity to succeed, any success of his will only encourage another knucklehead to become the next celebrity politician — like NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley, who continuously declares his desire to run for governor of Alabama. The U.S. voters need to stop falling for these gimmicks and elect those who truly can serve our nation.
Ed McPhee can be reached at email@example.com.