Merely famous -- or American Royalty?


WHATEVER snafus and ticketing debacles there were in inviting entertainment celebrities to the Clinton inauguration, the lessons of Hollywood protocol and peerage will be faced once again when the Clintons and their staff sit down to determine who needs to get what kind of a note of thanks.

In the course of 10 years of observing and evaluating the impact of public visibility in our mass-media culture, I have concluded that there are now six stages of stardom in America. Those celebrity tiers might serve as a means for the president to determine whom he must thank in his own words, or with his own pen.

Working from the bottom up, we'll begin with the Merely Famous. These folks have certainly achieved some level of notoriety and success, but in a time when fame has become America's greatest export, there is no shortage of people in this category. Even to list examples would risk offense in comparison to those of the more elevated rankings outlined here. Harsh as it may sound, the mere size of this group requires a form letter signed by machine.

In the land of the free and the home of the Stars we have the system that supports the caste. These personalities have proved merit in their profession and in the public's eye. They haven't necessarily made the cover of Time, but they have a good stack of press clippings, including at least one profile in People magazine. Examples of full-fledged Stars include: Rita Moreno, Emmylou Harris, Wynton Marsalis, Los Lobos, Bobby McFerrin and Ruben Blades. These folks deserve more than a form letter, so the new chief of staff might be the most appropriate person to write to them.

The next category, Superstars, has been so misused that there are now degrees of superstardom from minor to mega. Still, this remains a platinum class. These folks work only when they want. They've met, moved and made millions. All have been to the White House at least once and they know Jerry Lewis personally. Examples include Linda Ronstadt, Whoopi Goldberg, Chevy Chase and Jack Nicholson. I propose for this group a personalized typed note with a handwritten "Thanks for being with us," penned by Bill Clinton himself.

The next group is a select one: Legends and Heroes, all champions in their field who have reached the highest heights in America, and often much of the world. Many come from humble backgrounds, but they've achieved real class and deserve a personally dictated letter from the president, making reference to their special contribution to the inaugural and for their many years as goodwill ambassadors. Included in this group are Willie Nelson, Aretha Franklin, Chuck Berry, Lauren Bacall and Peter, Paul and Mary.

The difference between Legends and Heroes and the fifth grouping, National Treasures, is subtle; these folks are just slightly more revered and they almost always exert what Samuel Johnson called "the salutary influence of example." They are a very special few who embody the best of the American spirit. Included are Bill Cosby, Tony Bennett, Jack Lemmon, Ray Charles and Fred Rogers. Kathleen Battle makes my list. Maya Angelou, at least in this inaugural context, should be included among those who get a personalized, handwritten note from either the president or the first lady.

Finally, we come to the ultra-elite class of American Royalty. This most often results from birth, ballot or ballad. The Kennedys are born into this select club. Marriage to one can qualify you, too, but only if you have the tenacity to maintain the trappings of Imperial Superstardom, as Jackie O. demonstrated.

All serving presidents and their families gain their American Royalty status by ballot, but seldom maintain a high enough degree of continuing affection among their subjects to keep it once out of office.

Two who have made it by ballad are Barbra Streisand and Diana Ross. They are rare exceptions who have come to their status by the influence of their vocal magic and their ability to compel command performances. Ms. Ross has been treated regally for more than two decades by appreciative fans worldwide. Ms. Streisand, who can sing "Happy Days Are Here Again" in the only way the Democrats should use it henceforth, seems certain to keep her standing for life. She and Ms. Ross deserve nothing short of a handwritten letter from the new president.

Then there's Michael Jackson, truly in a class by himself. For him no thank-you letter is needed. Just send a llama.

Carl Douglas Rogers is working on a reference book titled "The Influence Directory: Who's Really Who (and How to Reach Them)".

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