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Celebrity politicians: It's not a role all of them were born to play

For a while, the hip-hop artist looked like a major contender in the Haitian presidential race. But legal issues appear to have prevented him from running.
By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Now that Wyclef Jean is running for president of Haiti, the big question is whether, deep down, the hip-hop activist is more like Ignace Paderewski, the great Polish pianist and composer, or Rubén Blades, the Panamanian actor and salsa singer.

Paderewski set aside his grand piano in 1919 to become prime minister of Poland. Blades flamed to defeat with 18 percent of the vote in his 1994 bid for the presidency of Panama.

That's the way it is with celebrities who look at the people running the world and say, Hey, I could do that. They marshal their money, talent and fame for a quixotic venture; endure accusations of dilettantism and vanity -- and discover politics is much harder than they thought. Paderewski threw up his hands and quit after less than a year.

For every Fred Grandy -- Gopher on "The Love Boat"; elected to Congress from Iowa (R), 1987-1995 -- and Ben L. Jones -- Cooter Davenport on "The Dukes of Hazzard"; elected to Congress from Georgia (D), 1989-1993 -- there's a Nancy Kulp -- Miss Hathaway on "The Beverly Hillbillies"; defeated for Congress from Pennsylvania (D) in 1984 -- and a Ralph Waite -- John Walton Sr. on "The Waltons"; defeated for Congress from California (D) three times between 1990 and 1998.

Where do they get off thinking they have any business in politics?

To put it another way, as Ronald Reagan said in his congratulatory telephone call to Clint Eastwood, upon the latter's 1986 election as mayor of Carmel, Calif.: "What's an actor who's played with a monkey want to be doing in politics?"

(Eastwood's résumé for the job included co-starring with an orangutan in "Every Which Way But Loose" and "Any Which Way You Can," while Reagan, before he was governor of California and president, shared billing with a chimpanzee in "Bedtime for Bonzo.")

Jean, 40, has been answering that question in different ways since he officially announced his campaign for the presidency late last week in Port-au-Prince.

"Some will question my lack of political experience," the Haitian-born artist admitted right up front, in a column in the Wall Street Journal. "I will tell them that being a nontraditional candidate is one of my greatest advantages." Jean, who moved to the United States at age 9, has a point: Lack of experience plus fame often equals a winning combination.

"A famous outsider candidate is in the best of all possible worlds because people are unhappy with the status quo and they see the celebrity as a white knight who can move things forward," says Darrell M. West, a vice president at the Brookings Institution and co-author of "Celebrity Politics," published in 2002.

Jean will have to pass a "threshold of seriousness," West says, but if he is like most celebrity candidates, that will not be as hard as it might seem.

"If you have money, media and message, you're going to do very well," he says. "Celebrities have a lot of experience with each of those."

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