The Big Idea

Condi, Hillary, and … Angelina?

When celebrities act like politicians, and politicians act like celebrities.

The only thing we agree on is … we’re all famous

On the evening of Sept. 29, Sen. Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and actress Angelina Jolie got together at the Kennedy Center for a gala sponsored by a group called the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS. (You can watch a video of the event or read a transcript here.) Just another excruciating Washington benefit dinner, you say. But pause for a moment to contemplate the silliness of the state-of-the art mélange of politics, celebrity, and corporate public relations that such an event represents.

First, there is the assumption—now almost automatic—that celebrities are public intellectuals on whatever issues they choose to take an interest in. I don’t know whether Angelina Jolie is smart, smart for Hollywood, or not smart even by Hollywood standards. I do know, because I watched her speech, that she doesn’t have much to say about AIDS. Her message to the assembled businesspeople and politicians was that we all must do more to fight this terrible disease. In particular, Jolie pressured the audience to pressure CEOs to pressure politicians to do more. When they have no idea what to do, celebs tell other people to tell other people what to do.

And just how saintly are these stars who give so freely of themselves? Cause-driven organizations like the Global Business Council want celebrity endorsements for the same reason companies like Nike and Coca-Cola do. Beautiful and famous people get everyone else to look at them. They create positive associations for whatever you’re selling. But our idols seldom act out of selfless motives. Whereas product endorsements pay cash, actors and musicians gain heft and respectability by supporting fashionable crusades. What fighting AIDS does for Jolie, freeing Tibet does for Richard Gere, relieving African debt does for Bono, and banning land mines does for Paul McCartney. From the cynical celebrity’s point of view, the best causes involve the poor, the sick, children, and animals in faraway places, both because of the telegenic aspect and because they bring no objection from fans or employers. If there were endangered baby pandas on the moon, Brad Pitt would be racing Ashley Judd there right now.

As celebrities get more involved in political causes—and threaten to run, or actually do run for political office—politicians are acting more like celebrities. Unglamorous senators and Cabinet secretaries now pose for Vanity Fair, write books with their own faces on the cover, and appear alongside Ben and Jennifer at red-carpet events. Only a handful of current or retired political figures—including the Clintons, the various Bushes, John McCain, and Colin Powell—are actually famous enough to qualify as top-drawer celebrities, but those few have a great advantage over the rest. A politician who counts as a celeb not only gets to bask in acclaim and hang out with the A-list. He or she can be a “leader” on an issue without being elected to anything and without the tedious work of legislating. If Washington is Hollywood for ugly people, Hollywood is Washington for the lazy. When Bill Clinton tries to help the victims of Katrina, Powell champions urban youth, or Bill Frist plays at being the nation’s doctor, they are politicians imitating celebrities imitating politicians.

In search of a comeback, celebrity pols sometime try the “celebrity duet.” Thus the matchups of former President Clinton with his old nemesis former President Bush to help victims of the Asian tsunami and Katrina, and Hillary Clinton with her and her husband’s longtime antagonist Newt Gingrich to promote health-care reform. Like Frank Sinatra singing with Chrissie Hynde, the “fun couple” of adored entertainer and notable politico generates irresistible curiosity, if only to see the crackup. The more unlikely the match, the more attention it gets. Good pairings in recent years have included grizzled rocker with right-wing fanatic (Bono and Jesse Helms on AIDS); hot babe with right-wing fanatic (Cameron Diaz and Pat Robertson for Live 8); and chiseled narcissist with libertarian populist (Arnold Schwarzenegger with himself). There are local versions, like Russell Simmons and Andrew Cuomo teaming up to reform New York’s Rockefeller drug laws, and politically savvy commercial ones, like Britney Spears and Bob Dole collaborating to promote Pepsi. As we get to the comeback-hungry B-list in both fields, endless mash-up possibilities unfold. Ashton Kutcher and Karen Hughes … Kate Moss and Scooter Libby … Paris Hilton and Bob Torricelli.

Wherever famous people endorse unimpeachable sentiments, large corporations are sure to provide the floral arrangements and stuff the goodie bags. Big companies shun political controversy, but these days all of them want credit for behaving in a “socially responsible” manner. Thus, the pallid consensus created by celebrity-politicians and politician-celebrities suits them perfectly. But the halo of glamour and corporate PR tends to conceal difficult elisions, if not fundamental disagreements. Political-celebrity pairings tend to be about raising money or simply proclaiming the need for action, because oddball, Hatfield-and-McCoy partners seldom truly agree about what should be done or who should do it.

For instance, at the AIDS dinner, the three divas posed together for the cameras and came up with complimentary things to say about each other. They all agree that more must be done. But in her remarks, Rice suggested that she and President Bush were handling the problem of AIDS in Africa the right way. In the only pointed remarks of the evening, Sen. Clinton criticized the administration for its anti-condom and sex-ed policy, which she said “will lead to the unnecessary deaths of many people around the world.” In other words, Hillary and Condi are on the same page about doing more about AIDS except for that small matter of Clinton thinking that Rice’s team is killing tens of thousands of people because of prudery and moralism.

For her part, Jolie (who recently received the Global Humanitarian Awardfrom the United Nations Association of the U.S.A. for her work as a “goodwill ambassador”) has suggested that money being spent on the Iraq war, which both Rice and Clinton support, should be used to save dying Africans. Instead of posing with them, shouldn’t she be protesting outside their offices?