Who started our elected officials down the slippery slope to the point where the public viewed them as indistinguishable from any other celebrity? Was it when Richard Nixon appeared on “Laugh-In” in 1968? Was it when ex-Speaker Tip O’Neill allowed himself the be shown in a commercial for Quality International Budget Hotels, popping out of a suitcase? Was it a decade earlier, when washed up song and dance man George Murphy won a U.S. Senate seat for California? There were critics who sounded the alarms loud and early about the dangers of our leaders trading on their visibility and power like any pop singer, athlete or actress; such critics were inevitably told to “lighten up.” We assumed, did we not, that our leaders, being responsible and respectful of our institutions, would know what lines not to cross, and when their self-mockery, playing around and hucksterism would risk harming the credibility of democracy and the public trust.
Why would we assume that, especially as cynical politicians increasingly sought to win the votes of even more cynical young voters?
Ronald Reagan explained to an interviewer that while it would be fun to return to acting—playing a Bond villain, maybe—after leaving the Presidency, it would be unseemly. Is anything unseemly now? Arnold Schwarzenegger stepped out of a Governor’s mansion back into cyborgdom without blinking. Rudy Giuliani appeared in drag on Saturday Night Live while he was still mayor. Senators and House members eagerly grabbed cameos in sitcoms and dramas. Some were even good at it: Senator John Glenn’s guest appearance on “Frazier” is one of the highlights of the whole series. Did any of these eager publicity hounds consider that the more our leaders behaved like every other celebrity, the less reason the public had to believe they were any better, smarter, or more honest than the politically vocal and usually ignorant celebrities who supported them?
A public office is a public trust, and therefore the honor of that office is a gift that the temporary occupant should not trade upon for crass commercial gain and ego fulfillment. It is bad, and corrupting, enough that the simple fact that they held high office is usually enough to guarantee former officials private sector employment in lobbying firms, universities, law firms and other lucrative enterprises. Still, the institution and positions a former elected leader leaves behind are still deeply affected by the conduct and the reputation of former occupants.
When I first studied Presidential leadership, the consensus among political scientists was that the public perceived the office of the Presidency according to the conduct, reputation, image and character of George Washington. Today, thanks to constantly sinking precedents, the public expects lies, excuses incompetence, and shrugs off greed, with the ugly example of the Clintons now reaching depths never envisioned even when Gerald Ford became the star client of the William Morris agency.
Yet somehow I didn’t think it would come to this. I didn’t foresee a former U.S. Senator following the lead of Marie Osmond and Kirstie Alley, and becoming a shill for a diet supplement. I am so damn naive sometimes. I assumed that an ex-Massachusetts Republican Senator would no more follow that seedy path, no matter how much he needed the money, then Sarah Palin would pose nude for Playboy. Yet here is Scott Brown, serving as spokesperson for AdvoCare products, which resemble Herbalife in their marketing plan and likely legitimacy.
His acceptance of such an undignified and dubious role harms every U.S. Senator, the institution of the Senate, and the republic itself. It further obliterates all pretense of superior character and respect for the institutions they serve from our politicians, and makes every single one of them appear less worthy of office, respectable or dignified in the eyes of citizens and voters. There are essays all over the web right now asking why slimy Donald Trump is polling so well, given that he is boor, a bully, a clod, a huckster and a self-promoting fool.
Scott Brown and the trend he represents is a big reason. “How is Trump any worse that the rest?” Trumps fans will ask. “At least he doesn’t pretend to be something he’s not.” Dignity and respect for the privilege of public service have always been vital tools of leadership, and prerequisites for attaining it. This was understood for so long that our leaders forgot why those qualities were important. Now they have neglected both for their own selfish, short-term gains in money, celebrity and ego-gratification, leaving a distrustful public that can no longer distinguish between statesmen and con artists….perhaps because there is no distinction left.
11 thoughts on “Scott Brown And The Slippery Slope To Distrust”
Politicians have long made money endorsing products of one type or another. This goes back into the 19th century. Branding has always been a way to collect extra coin as has speaking engagements, book deals and just about anything they can assign their name to. I NEVER purchase a product based on a celebrity endorsement. In fact, signal to avoid.
What products? When have cabinet officials, governors and Congressmen endorsed cheese, boots or cars? Speaking engagements are something different, and so are books.Show me an example of a 19th century national level politician in the US who hawked products for compensation. Royalty and peers in England often endorsed high level products, but US public servants have always been regarded differently. Ethics rules have prevented judges and lawyers from endorsing products, and law makers have followed the same principles until very recently.
Many years ago in another life I attended a discussion on advertising by Terry Shimp. I remember that name since it started “shrimp” jokes. Shimp has an extensive background in advertising and especially celebrity endorsements. He spoke of the history and I remember a few products mentioned such as something called “Dooley’s Yeast” that were endorsed by former politicians. He also rebuked the idea that Traveler’s Insurance was named after Robert E. Lee’s horse. Most spokesmen were in the insurance industry and either a likeness would be used or a news story. National Level? I doubt it, but I will not dismiss it. Also, the term he applied was “Testimonials,” since they did not use the term endorsement.
I would rather have a pol endorsing a dietary supplement or Viagra than being a lobbyist or using their former connections within government by being on the “Board” of various companies.
The ethics rules apply only when holding a position in government. No? I believe that is spelled out clearly. So what they do after they leave office is entirely different and that is what they are doing – selling their celebrity.
So, you seem to imply with your last sentence that they are doing this while in office despite ethic rules preventing it. Are they breaking the law?
I don’t want my elected leaders to act like me. I want them to be more intelligent and have a much firmer grasp on what is going on in the world. With that said, if I ever happen to be elected to office, I would love to do some work with Victoria’s Secret.
And Happy 4th to you all!
As a liberal and a disillusioned Barack Obama supporter, I can tell you that a large part of why I was so thrilled with him had to do with his “freshness” and seeming candor and being not like “the rest of those politicians.” I had such hope that his election would be what the nation needed to break the cycle of electing people we couldn’t believe in. Unfortunately this was not to be. One of the main complaints all along about our current POTUS has been his lack of experience. I fear that once many politicians have enough experience to truly qualify for public office, they have had to compromise their principles so much that they inevitably become tainted and ruined. I believe that it is very difficult to get elected without getting a little dirty. I have been disillusioned by politicians in the past, but this one was the worst. (Well… maybe Bill Clinton was worse, but I didn’t believe in him as highly as I believed in Barack Obama.)
I share your disillusionment. It’s not even talked about very much that Obama is in bed with more massive corporations on a grander scale than any previous president. When even the Huffington Post is willing to say this…
“Using any of a variety of measures, the Obama administration has broken all records in the distribution of taxpayer dollars to American businesses, primarily banks, automobile manufacturers and insurance companies.”
The Presidents in my mind that left the office maintaining its decency and reestablishing themselves as mere citizens were Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower. Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan. All of the others in the later part of the 20th Century have maintained a profile that interrupts the work of the Nation. Even ignominious Richard Nixon did not interfere with the ongoing work of a new administration.
As I recall, neither did either of the Georges Bush. “W”, in fact, repeatedly maintains that it is unseemly for a former President to slam his successor for any reason, a lesson Jimmy Carter apparently never learned.
Truman was infamous for taking potshots at Ike from the sidelines.
I think you nailed it at Nixon. His presidency started a couple of disturbing trends. Added to the celebritization of elected officials, before Watergate, people didn’t really care who their elected leaders were so long as they were competent. We had misogynists, racists, homosexuals, alcoholics, people riddled with sex scandals… We didn’t care: Do a good job. Now… It’s so much more important that the electorate LIKE their leadership.