Politicians who are playing at celebrity are playing with fire

A number of Republican aspirants to the White House in 2012 are garnering millions of media impressions by leveraging Fox News and other media outlets to fuel their ambitious goals. They don't realize it, but they are in danger of celebrity self-immolation.

Celebrityhood provides a quick way to ignite a candidacy and a fast track onto the mainstream of pop culture, but the flimsy medium can burn out quickly, leaving nothing but an ephemeral vapor behind — and destruction in its wake.

Celebrityhood is a dangerous elixir when drunk by politicians. While its power is mighty, it requires transformation to sustain itself. Witness how successful celebrities like Madonna have stayed current and relevant by constantly reinventing themselves. From the time she first appeared on the scene with her debut album in 1983, Madonna has morphed into countless iterations — from "Like a Virgin" to "Blond Ambition" to "Vogue" to "Ray of Light." Each time, her persona was altered substantially as she reemerged from the hidden chrysalis back onto the scene.

By comparison, try to name any Grammy Award winner for Best New Artist in the last two decades (Milli Vanilli, Hootie & The Blowfish, Amy Winehouse) and you'll see how quickly celebrityhood burned them out.

The Republican contenders who are today fixated on celebrity — Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Donald Trump and even Newt Gingrich — risk a similar fate. For unlike Madonna and celebrities who frequent the Hollywood Hills, politicians who reinvent themselves are scorned. Change, for a politician, is on a par with flip-flopping; such inconsistency is deadly. Like Prometheus, pols who steal fire from the Hollywood gods labor in a dangerous undertaking.

Yet, in today's star-hyped culture — where any Joe can become an instant, overnight star because of a momentary turn on a reality TV show — the medium has become too thin a veneer, too flimsy for the weight of a presidential hopeful.

Ah, but what about Barack Obama's magnificent campaign and how he was able to use television to his advantage? Indeed, his campaign actually managed him like a celebrity. He became the ultimate celebrity.

But as a result, his term in office has been a steep downward trajectory since his inauguration, and he's now at his lowest level of approval, even among supporters. In fact, the percentage of people who "strongly approve" of President Obama was 19 percent as of April 12, down from a high of 45 percent on Jan. 23, 2009 according to Rasmussen Reports.

Notably, Mr. Obama ran his campaign on the theme of "change." Perhaps it's no coincidence that change is most exemplified, according to the ancient Greek Heraclitus, in the metaphor of fire. The substance of fire — its very essence — is change.

Yet as fast as the speed of light, once in office, the theme of change was snuffed and the awesome task of managing the government became a reality.

It would be wise, fresh off of that court and spark, for the next presidential hopeful to understand that the power and gravity that propels sports stars, rock stars and movie stars can turn the Newtonian notion of celestial attraction into a black hole.

While celebrityhood pulls in politicians, journalists, sports figures and even criminals into its orbit, setting them ablaze, we mere mortals get singed and don't like it, as we're witness to the latest version of collapsing Charlie Sheen.

It may sometimes appear that social media has created some mythical fourth dimension, where stars (the gods of our culture) live alongside ordinary mortals and interact with us.

But for most of us down here on Earth, reality is where we live and go to school and work. It's also where most of us expect our next president to reside.

Abe Novick is a writer living in Towson. His e-mail is abe@abenovick.com.

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