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Celebrity Endorsements

People used to care.

12:00 AM, May 23, 2008 • By KEVIN KUSINITZ
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A sociologist could rightly make the case of cult of personality. Nevertheless, these movies reminds us of a time when patriotism wasn't ridiculed in popular entertainment. It was celebrated. When was the last time you saw a movie that didn't use the image of an American flag ironically? Or portrayed an American president as something other than a human punchline or a force of evil?

There were a few holdouts to the FDR cult. Lionel Barrymore and Gary Cooper were staunch Republicans. W.C. Fields' antagonism was more personal, rejecting the president's suggestion of a salary cap for movie stars. (Regarding a particular radio broadcast, Fields wrote a friend, "It would have been a lucrative adventure hadn't [taxes] taken such a bite out of my check due, I imagine, to the high cost of Mrs. Roosevelt's travel expenses.")

But by and large, Hollywood was Roosevelt-crazy, reaching its zenith nine years later with an astonishing 1944 Election Day eve radio broadcast sponsored by the Democratic party, airing simultaneously on all the networks. (And the left thinks President Bush controls the media!) Hosted by Humphrey Bogart, the special plays like a weeklong broadcast of Turner Classic Movies compressed into 60 minutes. Nearly every major movie and stage star of the day appears, some for only a few seconds, urging America to vote for Roosevelt. Roosevelt himself appears at the finale, sounding exhausted and ill--he had about six months to live.

Listening to the program today, what's most striking is its civilized tone. Bogart and company thoughtfully and articulately make their case as to why Roosevelt is the better man for the job. (For Bogie, it's because FDR "is one of the world's greatest humanitarians.") Even the program's satiric musical number (performed by James Cagney, Groucho Marx, and Keenan Wynn) is more a jab in the ribs than a punch in the mouth. Not once is there an insult or insinuation regarding the personal character of GOP contender Thomas Dewey.

Compare that to the notorious 2004 fundraiser for John Kerry at Radio City Music Hall. The celebrity participants spent the evening trash-talking President Bush so badly that one of them, Whoopi Goldberg, lost a commercial deal for her efforts.

Today, most voters are tired of, rather than impressed by, celebrity endorsements. During the early days of the '08 primaries, John Edwards was greeted with a mixture of boos and cheers when invited onstage during a John Mellencamp concert. It's a safe bet that many in the audience were Democrats, perhaps Edwards supporters themselves. But with today's ticket prices, all concertgoers want to hear is music. The clichéd cry of "Play 'Freebird'!" has been replaced by, "Shut up and sing!"

This hasn't stopped Bruce Springsteen from coming out for Barack Obama. Perhaps looking to evoke some Sinatra-type magic, Springsteen has his own Rat Pack--the E Street Band--to lend some juice. Yet one of his musical heroes, Bob Dylan, has never publicly endorsed a candidate during his nearly half-century in showbiz.

Some might put this down to Dylan treasuring his privacy. I'd bet, however, that it's more than likely a smart career move. Bruce Springsteen, you see, is a rock legend who's campaigned for at least two losing Democratic presidential candidates (so far). Bob Dylan is a rock legend, period. And that's way cooler than being a failed kingmaker.

Kevin Kusinitz is a contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.