The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts is getting old. This is much preferred to the alternative, of course, but it comes with certain side effects. Like getting grouchy when reading articles suggesting something is new when is not all that new.
The Politico story by Annie Karni and Tara Palmeri is interesting in detailing how Trump’s White House staffers are coping with their newfound celebrity, but then we get to these paragraphs:
[Kellyanne Conway is] not the only White House official who has transformed into a bona fide national celebrity, completing a melding of politics and entertainment that Washington observers say has been years in the making. …
“There’s an old axiom: Everybody in politics wants to be in show business, everyone in show business wants to be in politics,” said Ken Sunshine, founder of public relations company Sunshine Sachs and a former Hillary Clinton donor. “This is the merger. We’ve never seen anything like this.”
No, actually, we’ve definitely seen something like this before. Believe it or not, the 20th century had a few White House staffers who achieved similar levels of celebrity.
Admittedly, I’m a political scientist and a politics junkie, which means I have a pretty good memory of key White House staffers of administrations past. So I’m biased towards paying attention to these people. But let’s think about it a different way: Have previous White House officials achieved pop-culture celebrity?
Henry Kissinger, while he was Richard Nixon’s national security advisor, certainly achieved a fair measure of celebrity. He once said that “power is the ultimate aphrodisiac,” and apparently attempted to prove his own aphorism while working for Nixon:
A 1972 poll of Playboy bunnies selected Kissinger as the man with whom Hef’s ladies would most like to go out on a date. He also had a string of celebrity girlfriends in his younger days, including Diane Sawyer, Candice Bergen, Jill St. John, Shirley Maclaine, and Liv Ullman, who called Kissinger, “the most interesting man I have ever met.”
Lest you think this is an exaggeration, check out the Women’s Wear Daily profile of Kissinger from that period. It certainly rivals any current portrait of a White House staffer.
Twenty years later, the Clinton administration ushered in another White House staffer who broke through into popular culture. George Stephanopoulos epitomized the young Clintonistas who worked in the White House. He was visible enough to play a crucial role in the plot of a first-season “Friends” episode entitled, appropriately enough, “The One With George Stephanopoulos.”
Indeed, Stephanopoulos was visible enough to introduce a new kind of stock character in films involving the White House — the young, ambitious, earnest aide. See Michael J. Fox in “The American President” or Frank Whaley in “Broken Arrow” or David Marshall Grant in “The Rock.”
So we’ve seen celebrity White House staffers before. Is Trump’s crew really new in any way? Well, maybe, and here Karni and Palmeri might be onto something:
The easiest explanation for the overnight celebrification of the president’s staffers is that it reflects the man at the top. The “Apprentice” star-turned president has created a reality show in the White House, with Americans eating up storylines of who is rising, who is fading and who is screwing up. It’s the opposite of how “no drama Obama” dictated the tone and tenor of the West Wing.
This rings true. To be sure, Kissinger also talked to the press, as did the Clinton staffers. What is different with this group is that when these folks talk to the press, they are not just leaking about the president — they’re leaking about each other.
The effect of this is that Trump’s White House staffers are celebrities of a different kind. Henry Kissinger and George Stephanopoulos do not have a lot in common. Weirdly, however, their celebrity profiles while in office were both pretty positive. Kissinger was perceived as a strategic wizard who dated actresses. Stephanopoulos was perceived as a sexy, hard-working, earnest staffer. Trump’s team are celebrities, but they’re reality-show celebrities, which means that they are paragons of dysfunction rather than function.
White House staffers have achieved celebrity and fame in the past. That’s not new. What’s new is that the current celebrity culture cares far more about reality television. The president himself aided and abetted that trend. The result is a White House team that thinks of itself as being on television rather than trying to run the federal government.
It’s not a good look.