A well-traveled path
Q: Singer Wyclef Jean, who left Haiti when he was 9, says he's going to run for president of the earthquake-ravaged country. Can success in one pursuit propel you -- or him -- to success in a very different one? Or do celebrities who join the political fray sometimes let their egos get away from them?
Ronald Reagan was an actor long before he became president of the United States. Fred Grandy made his mark on the "Love Boat" (remember Gopher?) before the good citizens of Iowa sent him to the U.S. House of Representatives. Jesse Ventura's stint as governor of Minnesota was about as amusing as his career in pro wrestling. Arnold Schwarzenegger managed to win election as California's governor despite his career as a body builder and "action film" actor. Retiring Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning's finest moment came when he pitched a perfect game for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1964.
Time was when the ideal candidate for public office might have been a military hero (George Washington, Dwight Eisenhower) or college president (Woodrow Wilson). No more. In this media-driven age, celebrity (hence, votes!) is more likely to come through entertainment or sports than any other occupation.
Fans and voters have a lot in common. Fans nurture illogical fantasies about their relationship with the stars they adore, calling them by their first names and collecting memorabilia and facts like parents keeping scrapbooks of junior's every moment.
Voters also like to think that their candidate somehow knows them personally, or at least cares about them very much. Politicians, like entertainers, cultivate this false sense of personal relationship with everything from personalized form letters to "intimate" gatherings of select customers who pay money to get face time with their "friend."
Wyclef Jean's announcement that he will run for the presidency of his native Haiti follows a long line of entertainers who devote their spare time to political causes. Actor Sean Penn has spent a great deal of time recently in Haiti, and Angelina Jolie is well known for her travels through Third World nations.
Should celebrities trade on their fame to gain political power? Actually, most politicians start out in some other line of work, and few of them have specific training for the work that they will do in public office. The democratic way of life assumes that many citizens might be called to serve some day, and popular elections make little distinction between the skilled political scientist, football here or B-movie actor -- except that the stars are more likely to get votes because of their name recognition.
Celebrity politicians run the risk of having to do real work once in office. The real danger in the candidacy of a Wyclef Jean or other entertainer is the fiction that popularity is good enough for public work. I have no idea whether Jean has the skills necessary to be a good leader for Haiti. Rumors about mismanagement of funds for his foundation Yele Haiti need to be addressed directly so that we can know more about his integrity and ability to manage money.
Haiti desperately needs strong, skilled leadership to rebuild that devastated nation. The challenges are immense; the work will take many years. Haiti's voters should weigh their needs carefully against the track record and skills of the candidates for the presidency. Unfortunately, given conditions in that country, too few citizens may have the time or inclination to weigh such questions thoughtfully.
The real danger is that Haiti's tragedy will only deepen if its choice of future leadership is based on celebrity rather than talent.
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