Sweet On Caroline

Posted Dec. 25, 2008, at 7:07 p.m.

If Americans really wanted their representatives and senators to be nothing more than hardworking public servants with encyclopedic knowledge of the issues, Congress would be filled with plain-looking, dull-speaking people wearing ill-fitting suits. Such as Ralph Nader.

So maybe much of the indignant clucking at the possibility that New York Gov. David Paterson will appoint Caroline Kennedy as that state’s senator, filling the seat vacated by secretary of state designate Hillary Clinton, should be taken with a grain of salt.

Despite the patriotic pride we take in remembering our repudiation of monarchy, nobility and aristocracy, American voters replaced it with something slightly different. We are easily seduced by charm, looks, great hair and the quiet confidence that comes with old money. And we are particularly susceptible to celebrity.

John McCain tried to shame voters into dismissing the Barack Obama phenomenon as something akin to the breathless infatuation with Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. But the truth is most Americans don’t hold celebrity against their elected officials. In fact, we are happy to let it influence us.

Consider our history. Ronald Reagan, a movie actor whose body of work fell largely into the B-movie category, probably would not have achieved higher office than Screen Actor Guild president had he not had a face that was familiar to millions. His good looks and trained vocal delivery were icing on the cake. In Maine, Angus King had been in our living rooms as the host of MPBN’s “Maine Watch” for years before he sought elected office, giving him familiarity and gravitas other candidates would only dream of achieving.

There are plenty of other examples. Pop singer Sonny Bono was elected to Congress. Comedian Al Franken appears to be headed toward victory in the Minnesota Senate race. TV actor Fred Thompson was elected senator from Tennessee, and then ran for president. Actor and body-builder Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor of the largest state in the nation. And Ms. Clinton herself, with no elected office experience and no ties to New York, parlayed her husband’s popularity in that blue state to two easy elections as senator.

So why not acknowledge that there are certain celebrities we are disposed to like, perhaps because we sympathize with their struggles, or like their looks and charm, or feel as if they are a friend of sorts. And some of it is relevant to the job they seek. The same qualities that give them high favorability ratings with the public also work in the political arena.

Is Caroline Kennedy qualified to be a U.S. senator? Maybe not. But all the warm and fuzzy feelings some people have for her should not be seen as liabilities. And if we’re honest, we would admit that we do evaluate potential leaders on the way they make us feel as much as on their resumes and policy positions.

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