Judging from the ratings, one of the political stories Americans have been most riveted by in the past few years is Kerry Washington's ongoing affair with the president.
This, of course, didn't happen in real life. Washington stars on "Scandal," the popular D.C.-based TV drama that 10.5 million people tuned in to watch during its third season finale this spring. (Watching celebrities muck up fictional governance is way more entertaining than watching it in real life!)
Judging from pundits, though, Americans are far less interested -- are perhaps even disgusted -- when Washington professes her love for the real president, as she is sure to do at the big Democratic National Committee fundraiser that she and "Scandal" creator Shonda Rhimes are hosting tomorrow night in Los Angeles.
But this type of celebrity-politician hobnobbing isn't an Obama creation. And there's little evidence that average Americans really care all that much.
When Obama attended a fundraiser hosted by Sarah Jessica Parker and Vogue editor Anna Wintour during the 2012 presidential election, RNC chair Reince Preibus wrote an op-ed titled, "Out-of-touch Obama Is in Wintour Wonderland." Outside of the D.C. presidential optics police, however, not too many people seem to be worried about idea of celebrities doing the president a solid. George Clooney hosted another election fundraiser for Obama in 2012. It raised $15 million. Most of the money came from a contest to win tickets to the event -- not from the $40,000 tickets. While columnists found the fundraiser an augur of democracy's end, plenty of Americans were clamoring for a seat.
People may hate politicians -- and they may be losing affection for Obama -- but they also love celebrities. This is a truth that politicians will never tire of taking advantage of, and damn the torpedoes.
And besides the public's obsession with celebrities, there is also the fact that this industry is drowning in money. As former White House press secretary Mike McCurry told the White House during the Clinton administration: "Fund-raising is like robbing a bank. You've got to go where the money is."
President Clinton's celebrity fundraisers were legendary. A September 1996 event, attended by Barbra Streisand, Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, record producer David Geffen and Maya Angelou, raised $4 million. Two public interest groups ran an ad in the Los Angeles Times shortly before the event. According to the Associated Press, "It pictured a fat cat with a big cigar and armload of money saying in headline, 'Welcome to California, President Clinton.'"
Hanks, Streisand and Spielberg each gave $10,000 to Clinton's legal defense fund during his impeachment trial.
Some members of the media were not impressed. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote in 1993, "The Clinton White House is extravagantly star-struck." She quoted the New Republic's Leon Wieseltier, who said: "The idea that these insulated and bubble-headed people should help make policy is ridiculous. Hollywood actors are even more out of touch than elected politicians. In Hollywood, politics is another way of dressing and talking." A 1996 Associated Press article noted that "party officials are always concerned that gallivanting with movie stars can make Clinton look out-of-touch with the common man."
The complaining didn't compel anyone to stop.
In 2000, Al Gore benefited from Clinton's Hollywood coattails. Sarah McLachlan sang at one of his events, and Nicolas Cage, Chevy Chase, Kevin Costner, Robert DeNiro and Harrison Ford were among his donors.
In 2002, President George W. Bush helped raise money for GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon. Celebrities, such as Kelsey Grammar, were in the crowd.
And the schmoozing continued. In 2005, as fundraising was quietly beginning for the 2008 presidential primaries, Arizona Sen. John McCain was grabbing dinner with Warren Beatty, and Hillary Clinton was meeting with Streisand, Rhea Perlman and Danny DeVito. In 2012, actor Robert Duvall hosted a fundraiser for Mitt Romney. There are already a bunch of celebrities who would love Hillary Clinton to run again in two years.
Of course, the Clintons didn't invent celebrity fundraising, either.
In 1992, Clinton's incumbent opponent, George H.W. Bush, had Jimmy Stewart, Charlton Heston, Bob Hope and Chuck Norris as celebrity donors. The vice president's running mate in 1980 and 1984, Ronald Reagan, was a former actor, and called upon many of his fellow stars, such as Tom Selleck, and bosses for financial help.
In 1976, Elizabeth Taylor attended a Jimmy Carter fundraiser, wearing a golden peanut pin. In 1972, the Malibu Mafia -- including Paul Newman and Jack Lemmon -- helped raise money for presidential candidate Sen. George McGovern. In 1960, Frank Sinatra -- a big Democratic fundriaser -- hosted a huge fundraiser for John F. Kennedy in Los Angeles. There were more than 2,800 guests, including Milton Berle, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh and Shirley MacLaine. In the 1950s, movie executives raised record-breaking amounts for Dwight D. Eisenhower. FDR also knew who had the deepest pockets and most influence in Hollywood.
It might be easier to track Obama's celebrity donors, but he definitely didn't pioneer the process. As long as there has been a movie industry, it has been trying to make friends in the White House -- just like every other industry filled with people with lots of disposable income and a sweet tooth for power. And as long as they've been doing it, they've been yelled at for making friends in the wrong places.
One of the main complaints filed against Obama's celebrity fundraisers is that he throws more of them than his predecessors. If you look around at electoral politics today, however, it's hard to find a nook of campaigning that hasn't been doused with campaign finance Miracle Gro. Democrats are also raising more money from Silicon Valley, and Republicans are raising more money from Wall Street and energy companies than they ever have before. Fundraising inflation is as inevitable as celebrity fundraisers -- the person who replaces Obama in the White House is probably going to be hanging out with a lot of celebrities, too, perhaps even more.
So complain away about Obama's California sojourns -- it's true that these presidents and presidential candidates are raising monumental sums when they visit Southern California -- but realize that your grumbling isn't in the least bit novel. And this grumbling has yet to affect a president or his party enough to swear off the practice for good -- in Hollywood, or on Wall Street, or anywhere else.