past is prologue

Politics Was Riddled With Celebrities Long Before Trump

Stars entering U.S. politics isn’t a new trend — in fact, it may be one of the oldest.

Helen Gahagan Douglas addressing the World Youth Rally in New York City, March 21, 1945. Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Everett/Shutterstock
Helen Gahagan Douglas addressing the World Youth Rally in New York City, March 21, 1945. Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Everett/Shutterstock
Helen Gahagan Douglas addressing the World Youth Rally in New York City, March 21, 1945. Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Everett/Shutterstock

Could there really be something new under the sun in U.S. politics? “Celebrities are America’s new politicians,” proclaimed an Axios headline published this week. The piece explained:

Launching gubernatorial bids, making presidential endorsements, founding schools: Celebrities are getting increasingly involved in U.S. public and political life …

As we’ve reported, politics is no longer just the purview of career politicians, as companies and their CEOs throw their weight around to affect policies. Now, movie stars, famous musicians and professional athletes also are using their influence in politics.

It has often been asserted that Donald Trump’s election as president abolished all prerequisites for high-level political candidacy. But are we really starting to see the results of that “paradigm shift,” as Axios suggests? Some of the examples offered fade a bit under scrutiny. Yes, Caitlyn Jenner ran in the recent California gubernatorial recall contest. She also finished in 13th place with one percent of the vote, and even that is inflated since a big chunk of voters skipped the replacement contest entirely.

There is a rich history of celebrities running for office — and winning — long before Trump, but apparently they’re not much of a factor in this current trend. Axios brings up Ronald Reagan only to dismiss him as irrelevant because he had served in lower office before becoming president (though I’d say getting elected governor of California without any prior government service was pretty significant). Arnold Schwarzenegger is cited as a cautionary tale for celebrities with no political experience, as he was widely criticized while serving as governor of California (though he managed to get himself reelected by a landslide). If it’s remarkable that Matthew McConaughey might run for governor of Texas in 2022, perhaps it’s even more notable that ex-wrestler Jesse “the Body” Ventura actually did get elected governor of Minnesota in 1998, a decade before the same state elected TV star and comedian Al Franken to the U.S. Senate?

Stars trying to influence politics without entering the arena themselves strikes me as even more underwhelming. Maybe that’s because I’m old enough to remember much earlier generations of celebrity support for politicians, including the Rat Pack’s famous affinity for Richard Nixon and the host of entertainment and athletic figures associated with the Kennedys. The celebrity factor was kind of hard to miss when former football great Roosevelt Greer, Olympic gold medalist Rafer Johnson, and authors George Plimpton, Jimmy Breslin, and Pete Hamill wrestled Sirhan Sirhan to the ground after he shot RFK, then singer and TV star Andy Williams made a huge stir singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” at Bobby’s funeral.

But the star-turned-politician trend well predates the 1960s. One could even argue it’s among the oldest trends in U.S. politics, if you consider George Washington and the nine fellow generals who succeeded him in the presidency “celebrities.” Here are just some of the figures who earned fame in other walks of life and then converted it into political capital long before Trump traded reality-show sets for the Oval Office.

Actors in politics

Reagan and Schwarzenegger actually had plenty of predecessors in California politics who were first actors. In 1964, Tinseltown star George Murphy was elected to a U.S. Senate seat from the Golden State (he held it for one term before losing to John Tunney, the son of famous boxer Gene Tunney, who in turn lost to S.I. Hayakawa, who was a mere college administrator when he became a celebrity by harshly suppressing a student strike).

In the 1940s, Broadway and Hollywood actress Helen Gahagan Douglas was elected to Congress from California and was the 1950 Democratic nominee facing Richard Nixon in what became one of the most famous (and vicious) U.S. Senate races ever. Douglas, in fact, pioneered the apt sobriquet “Tricky Dick” for the future president. She also allegedly had a long-standing affair with Lyndon B. Johnson, though it’s possible that was just celebrity gossip.

And Shirley Temple, perhaps the most famous child actor of all time, entered politics as an adult. As Shirley Temple Black, she ran for Congress in California in 1967 and later held multiple diplomatic positions.

Outside California, Hollywood actor John Davis Lodge was elected to Congress from Connecticut in 1946, then elected governor in 1950; he was later U.S. ambassador to Spain. TV actor Fred Grandy served four terms as a congressman from Iowa. And while he began his career as a Senate staffer and lobbyist, Fred Thompson was much better known as an actor when he was elected to the U.S. Senate from Tennessee in 1994.

Musicians in politics

Jimmie Davis, a country and gospel singer best known for “You Are My Sunshine,” was first elected governor of Louisiana in 1944 and then returned to the office in 1960 as a reactionary opponent of civil rights.

Next door in Texas, another legendary reactionary, W. Lee (“Pass the Biscuits, Pappy”) O’Daniel, was elected governor in 1939 and a U.S. senator in 1941 (beating LBJ in that contest) after becoming famous as a country-music bandleader and radio huckster for the Hillbilly Flour Company.

And going back to California, Sonny Bono (of Sonny & Cher fame) was elected to two terms in Congress before being killed in a skiing accident.

Journalists and writers in politics

One of the more interesting contemporary examples of a celebrity leaping into electoral politics is the likely candidacy of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof for governor of Oregon next year. But he isn’t the first celebrity journalist or author to run for high office. If the Douglas-Nixon contest was the nastiest in California history, certainly the second nastiest was the 1934 gubernatorial race between muckraking author and journalist Upton Sinclair (a longtime Socialist running as a Democrat) and Republican pol Frank Merriam. The latter won after huge negative attacks on Sinclair as an un-American who was financed and produced by Hollywood studios and the Hearst newspapers.

It’s notable that Merriam himself began his career as a newspaper publisher. So too, obviously, did Hearst company founder William Randolph Hearst (the model for Orson Welles’s Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane), a powerful figure in California and national politics for decades and, for a while, a serious aspirant for the presidency (especially in 1904). And one less-than-distinguished U.S. president, Warren G. Harding, was also a local newspaper editor and publisher before formally entering politics.

President Theodore Roosevelt was a published author of a book of military history before he entered politics and government, though he was probably not rightly a “celebrity” that early. One of the oddest and briefest political careers was conducted by the controversial novelist and playwright Gore Vidal, who ran a serious campaign for Congress in New York in 1960 and then a quixotic race against Jerry Brown for the California Democratic U.S. Senate nomination in 1982. Vidal later played a U.S. senator in the political satire film Bob Roberts.

Athletes in politics

Caitlyn Jenner is hardly the first celebrity ex-athlete to go into politics. She is, in fact, not even the first Republican Olympic gold-medal decathlete to go into California politics. Bob Matthias, who won the gold in the Decathlon twice (1948 and 1952), later served four terms in Congress representing the northern San Joaquin Valley.

Other Olympians who served in Congress include Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado (judo) and representatives Ralph Metcalfe of Illinois and Jim Ryun of Kansas (both track).

Baseball great Jim Bunning served one term in the U.S. Senate representing Kentucky. Football was represented by Hall of Fame coach Tom Osborne (a congressman from Nebraska), NFL wide receiver Steve Largent (a congressman from Oklahoma), and NFL quarterback Jack Kemp (a congressman from New York, a presidential candidate, and the Republican VP nominee in 1996). The most famous basketballer in politics was Bill Bradley, the Princeton and NBA star who served three terms in the U.S. Senate and ran for president in 2000.

Other celebrities in politics

The above categories don’t at all cover the various ways people become famous and then get into politics. John C. Frémont was a famed explorer. Herbert Hoover (known as the Great Humanitarian) won global fame as a food-relief organizer during and after World War I before he entered government service. And in our own era, a significant number of civil-rights-movement veterans have made their way into electoral politics (led by the late John Lewis).

The bottom line is there’s no real evidence that we’re entering some sort of golden age of celebrities going into politics, or even that Trump changed everything. He may be the least-accomplished celebrity ever to win high office, but he wasn’t the first and will hardly be the last.

Politics Was Riddled With Celebrities Long Before Trump