TALK SHOW HOST JERRY SPRINGER IS CONTEMPLATING A RUN FOR THE SENATE AS A DEMOCRAT, NOT A REPUBLICAN, AS REPORTED IN JONATHAN YARDLEY'S COLUMN IN YESTERDAY'S STYLE SECTION. (PUBLISHED 08/10/99)

Reading the newspapers last week it was all but impossible to keep the gag reflex under control. Bob Backlund, a former professional wrestler, is running for Congress as a Republican in Connecticut, and others who came to notoriety in the same "sport" are considering similar undertakings; Jerry Springer, deemed by many authorities the most vulgar of all talk show hosts, may run for the Senate in Ohio, also as a Republican; and of course we have Hillary Rodham Clinton--talk about vulgarity!--and her simultaneous ventures into elective politics and pop psychology.

Hard on the heels of this onslaught was a commentary in the Wall Street Journal by Tod Lindberg, the editor of Policy Review, under the headline "Washington Goes Hollywood." That pretty much sums it up. Lindberg went on at some length, and for the most part in an interesting way, but the brunt of his analysis was that "politics is becoming a celebrity vocation," or, as he wrote: "Celebrity, in the form of fame, was once sometimes a byproduct of politics. The virtually anonymous Mr. Smith might go to Washington and make a name for himself by doing the right thing. But now, celebrity seems for some the goal of political engagement. One comes to politics not to make a difference, but to make a splash."

That is true so far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. By concentrating on the celebrity-politicians themselves, Lindberg keeps his focus too narrow. What he describes is lamentable--"the new celebrity culture of Washington"--but it is merely a mirror image, or a microcosm, of the much larger celebrity culture that afflicts the entire nation. If many people in politics now aspire to celebrity rather than accomplishment, by the same token the people who elect them are no longer capable of distinguishing between celebrity and competence. If Washington is populated by far too many people who are famous merely for being famous, please bear in mind that empty fame is precisely what got them elected in the first place.

"In the old days," Lindberg writes, "status attached to those who best practiced politics, who talked most intelligently about it, who knew its inner workings best. To be a Cabinet secretary or congressman was to possess a barony. To be a journalist was to traffic in confidences, the coin of the realm. And to be assistant to the president, with frequent access to the Oval Office--this was the center of the universe."

Yes, but the good old days weren't that good. Though some people got to Washington the hard way--working up the ladder from local to state to national office, learning along the way the inner workings not merely of politics but also of governance--others were machine hacks or beneficiaries of famous names or (yes: remember Warren Gamaliel Harding) pretty faces or venal opportunists. It is no exaggeration to say that the call of fame and glory and fortune has always been stronger than the call of conscience; in the age of celebrity the call is simply more audible, and those who follow it are more visible.

The big difference is not that people come to Washington to become famous--they always have--but that they believe they are entitled to public office because of fame they already enjoy in utterly unrelated lines of work or play, and that the electorate agrees. Perhaps it is possible to conjure a notion more ludicrous than that professional wrestling is a legitimate avenue to political leadership, but it has apparently become part of the received wisdom, put there by the improbable (and by no means wholly lamentable) success of Jesse "The Body" Ventura as well as by the huge, avidly loyal television audiences that wrestling attracts. This phenomenon has absolutely nothing to do with competence for office and everything to do with celebrity pure and simple.

The same, God knows, is true of the senatorial candidacy that Hillary Rodham Clinton is interminably launching. The only claim she has to elective office--the only claim--is that she is famous. Were she not famous, her declaration for a Senate seat in a state where she has never lived would get no more respect than the declarations of the Flat Earth candidate or the Extraterrestrial Rights candidate. She has plenty of opinions, the vast majority of them half-baked, but no real experience at putting opinion into action. When her husband let her run the health-reform operation she made a complete botch of it, in large measure because her arrogant, peremptory manner alienated the professional politicians (those who still exist) on Capitol Hill.

None of which seems to make the least difference to Democratic voters in New York, who are falling all over Mrs. Clinton as if she were Barbra Streisand or Martha Stewart. Some readers may find this apt, since the first lady operates at about the same intellectual level as these giants of popular culture, but that does not ameliorate the genuinely odious spectacle of audiences in New York hanging upon her every banality and bromide as if they were the latest bulletins from Alexis de Tocqueville. As for the sympathy vote she is cultivating thanks to the repellent behavior of her repellent husband, that is beneath contempt: Pity as claim to public office!

So blame Hillary Clinton and the other famous faces who think their celebrity entitles them to run the country, but please do not forget that under our system elective office is, uh, elective. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in our star-gazers.

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardley@twp.com.