Beyond Rummy, the Stars
Bono looked very much at home on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday talking about Third World debt. So much so that the future path for Sunday morning talk shows became blindingly obvious: Dispense with politicians altogether. They have passed their sell-by date. They don't smell so good.
On that same "Meet the Press" there was more credibility in Bono's earnest simplifications of the African aid issue than in Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld blowing off Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel's assertion that the White House is "completely disconnected from reality." And at least the Bono "get" was an exclusive. Rumsfeld had already perpetrated his patronizing twinkle on ABC's "This Week," patiently explaining to George Stephanopoulos that "progress has been solid" in Iraq despite the rising violence, the ever grimmer news bulletins and the on-the-record misgivings of the military.
There's no need anymore for TV news to suffer the ratings death guaranteed by triple-booked administration officials and wearisome, dome-headed "experts." Sean Penn is already out there as a foreign correspondent. Brad Pitt can be booked as an old Africa hand. Tom Cruise can be tapped for pharmacology updates. It's the solution Viacom co-president Les Moonves has been looking for as he retools CBS News. If you look hard enough, there's a celebrity for every issue that someone needs three minutes of talking-headery about. It wouldn't take long for an old pro like Clint Eastwood to get himself a backswept hairlift and do a creditable Joe Biden. And there's a lot to be said for putting Halle Berry in to pinch-hit for Condi Rice and letting the secretary of state get on with playing the piano.
Some of the rampant identity exchange is simple job protection on the part of movie stars. With box office receipts down, video game receipts up and the weekly flashmags disseminating images that can no longer be controlled, celebrities are forced to look for new avenues of conquest.
On top of that, there's the massive displacement caused by Hollywood's Great Unmentionable: the war. Managers, agents and studio heads have hammered home to stars that protest politics is too much of a hazard in this vindictive political climate. After the red-state message of the election, no one in Hollywood is about to risk going postal on Iraq. War angst, a natural cause for that community, is being channeled into less politicized humanitarian agonies like Africa.
Of course, Bono apart, it's a bit of a problem when the nation increasingly depends for information on people who know very little about what they're talking about. The visuals don't entirely make up for it. Celebrities tend to be flawed as foreign correspondents because, like politicians, when they travel people know who they are.
However sincere his motives, the good-hearted Brad Pitt, aka The Sexiest Man Alive, will learn about as much in Africa about the issues at stake as Rumsfeld learns about how the troops really feel when he goes to get "on-the-ground intelligence" in Iraq. Pitt isn't straphanging between malarial villages in a stinking bus any more than Rumsfeld is being shot at in a Humvee armored with pieces of scrap metal. Global celebrity will always be as much of a barrier to authentic experience as the defense secretary's custom-made Rhino Runner, described in Sunday's New York Times as a "rolling fortress of steel."
I keep hungering for the old-fashioned kind of witness who's rarely booked as a TV guest these days -- the eccentric seasoned traveler who's there not to make a point but because he or she is curious. I love looking at Angelina Jolie (and I believe that she cares), but on Africa I'd rather hear from Paul Theroux. Theroux, world wanderer and author of "Dark Star Safari," has traveled overland from Cairo to Cape Town, paddled the length of the Zambezi in a kayak and lived in the bush as a schoolteacher.
"People have always loved to see Africa as unfinished, as something that can be fixed," he told me on the phone from his summer home on Cape Cod. "Celebrities are empowered and vitalized by seeing Africa as helpless. But there is plenty of expertise there. . . . The real story of Africa can be summed up in a shot of all the qualified doctors and nurses rolling their suitcases through the airport in Zambia leaving to work in hospitals in the U.K. Very talented and educated Africans choose to leave. And the reasons for that are complex."
In Britain, Tony Blair has been shrewd at working the entertainment beat for political advantage. The prime minister, always assiduous in cultivating celebrities, has outdone himself this week on the eve of the G8 conference by allowing a celebrity to take center stage. He and Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown have brilliantly made Bob Geldof's Make Poverty History campaign their own. Peter Oborne, writing in Britain's Spectator magazine, is surely right that the surprising political salience of the poverty agenda is related to the collapse of traditional party politics. What Blair understands is that for the ADD generation, hot-button single-issue campaigns have increasingly supplanted the slow-form tedium of political parties, processes and programs. Harnessing the right one builds the base. In buzzword politics, celebrities will increasingly be the branding tools.
President Bush could use one right about now. In his address to the nation Tuesday night he stressed that it is the political momentum inside Iraq, not America's military might, that will guarantee the mission's success. Let's hope so, because he's left us with no alternative. When he returned as always to the shopworn inference that we will win the war because right is on our side, he sounded like Tom Cruise on the "Today" show beating on Matt Lauer with his certainty that all psychotherapy and its medical remedies are bad. "Matt, Matt. You see, here's the problem. You don't know the history of psychiatry. I do."
That kind of pronouncement is okay for a movie star in the clutches of some undefined hypermania, but the presidency itself today is defined by the conviction that conviction trumps everything. Belief is all. Evidence is nothing. Faith-based is everything. Reality-based is suspect. We are all Scientologists now.