Reagan: The ÔPerformingÕ Politician


A man who prolonged the Cold War by turning the heat on the Soviet Union. A man who talked glibly of freedom and democracy but supported some of the worst dictators in Latin America and Asia. And a man who made the privatization of government a religious cause but who finally departed Planet Earth with a subsidized STATE funeral (that funeral should have been auctioned out really).

Long after all that manufactured hype around the demise of former US President Ronald ‘Gipper’ Reagan fades out, here is what I think he will finally be remembered for: as the most powerful B-grade movie actor ever in human history.

Think about it. Which other actor anywhere, outside the make-believe world of the movie sets, ever had his hands as close to the nuclear button as did Ron Reagan? Which other star of tinseldom anywhere commanded not just an entire army, but the most powerful one in the world too? Which other member of the acting profession ever got the chance to display all of his/her histrionic talents to a worldwide audience of the bold, beautiful and powerful non-stop for nothing less than eight years in a row?

And of course, which other screen hero ever got so much opportunity in real life to deliver so many clichéd lines and delivered every one of them? I have no doubt at all that some of the finest acting in Ronald Reagan’s career came while occupying the White House with theatricals far surpassing any show he put on as the leading man of some low-budget Hollywood flick. (“Mr. Gorbachev, bring down the Berlin Wall” indeed!!!)

If anyone thinks I am playing Ripper to the Gipper, so be it. All I am trying to point out is that all his other ‘contributions’ to humanity pale in comparison to his role in the global elevation of the entertainment industry to top spot as a fountainhead of domestic politicians. Without Ronnie then, there could be no Arnie now.

When Ronald Reagan entered politics it was still considered the art of the possible. By the time he exited it had well and truly become the art of the POSEable. In fact, if you want to talk about the entire global epidemic of actors, sportsmen, television personalities and other sundry entertainers turning politicians Reagan as US President was certainly a ‘super-spreader’ (to borrow an interesting phrase coined at the height of the SARS pandemic in Asia last year).

Am I hinting wickedly somewhere between the lines that there is something wrong with entertainers becoming political leaders? Goodness me, no. When convicts can become politicians why not cine artists? Of course, they have as much right as those in any other profession to become politicians.

The only problem though is that the only qualifications required to become a successful politician these days has all to do with the ability to act and nothing else. The semi-permanent Close-Up smile, a moist eye for a moist occasion, pretended outrage at portended events, the kissing of babies that cannot even vote and the avoidance of truth like the Al Qaeda coming home for dinner- this is what it takes to be a ‘good’ political ‘leader’ in our democracies.

No longer does a politician have to really understand the needs of his constituency, meet the people who need his help the most, have a good grasp of local, national or international policies or in the absence of all this at least be a decent human being. The deft manipulation of body, language and soul to fit every occasion is all that is required.

And of course, all this is not something peculiar to the United States either. In India where I come from, leave alone movie stars even completely mythological characters are capable of winning or at least heavily influencing elections.

In the early nineties the right-wing BJP rode to power using the mythical warrior king Rama from the ancient Indian epic ‘Ramayana’ as their star campaigner. Their main electoral pitch was a promise to build a temple at the purported site of his ‘birthplace’ (which, conveniently, lay ‘exactly beneath’ a 16th century mosque). The right-wing cause was helped immensely by the broadcast of a television soap dramatizing the ‘Ramayana’, in the last few years of the eighties, with several of its star actors actively campaigning for the BJP outside the idiot box also.

And the recently concluded elections in India saw a record number of celebrities from Bollywood and at least one cricket sports star enter Indian electoral politics, adding glitter to the usual litter. A significant number of them in fact won seats in parliament too. One of them, known for his signature movie dialogue ‘if you were brought up on your mother’s milk, come out and fight with me’ is expected to do particularly well as a politician. (This statement about ‘mother’s milk’ by the way is not meant to hurt the interests of Nestle’s baby milk powder business)

In the Philippines, a country with a lot of similarities to India (by which, I mean low development indicators), a movie star, Joseph Estrada, was actually President a few years ago, before being thrown out, quite ironically, in a staged, slickly produced and acted ‘people’s power’ revolt against him. In the elections there this month Ferdinand Poe, an action movie hero and acolyte of Estrada nearly beat incumbent Gloria ‘Mahapagal’ Arroyo to the post. (In this case I must say anything, even the cutout of an actor, would be better than leaving this big-mouthed, peanut-sized US puppet in power.)

And as if movie stars in politics were not enough, the race for the post of Bangkok governor underway right now includes a guy who is better known as the king of the city’s numerous and very shady massage parlors! Massaging the electorate before the elections and then the truth once elected to power, I suppose! So, what is this all about-I mean what explains the Reagan phenomenon as well as the worldwide trend of entertainers turning politicians?

Advertorial versus electoral democracy: As mentioned before, a lot of electoral politics today is about pretending to ‘serve the public’ anyway with elected leaders acting all through their terms in power. So if politicians have become actors why is it surprising that actors too are turning into politicians- it is the simplest revolving-door scam of our times.

Again, just as in our economic life where we often buy goods not because of their inherent quality but because of the ‘sexiness’ of their image, in our political systems too public showmanship has become way more important than private reality. Any candidate able to project a ‘better’ image is automatically considered the ‘better’ choice too. Those who can spend big money on getting advertising and public relations outfits to polish their image win over those who cannot.

This strategy does not always work though, as shown by the recent electoral defeat of the BJP in India that used its multi-million dollar ‘India Shining’ and ‘Feel Good’ campaigns to convince voters that the prosperity of a tiny elite was the reality of the entire country. As a friend put it, the ‘shining’ was probably the moon gleaming off the bleached bones of dead farmers and the Indian electorate refused to be blinded.

Amusing ourselves to death: Another reason why entertainers have become so high profile in politics is probably due to the very low expectations that most alienated citizens have from their politicians these days. The motto it seems is, don’t do a song and dance about crooked politicians – instead get a politician who can do some song and dance for you.

This trend is also an indication of how addicted populations have become to constant external stimulation and titillation to make their own lives ‘interesting’ that they don’t bother to see beyond the mere entertainment value of their politicians. Why bother to pay for a ticket at the movie hall when you can watch them all on your evening news show! As long as they keep on amusing you they are free to do anything they want in your name-loot the treasury, go to war, ruin your children’s future- keep tickling and pass the popcorn please!

Camouflaging corporate elites: Just as in the movie industry where every actor has a ‘director’ who tells him/her what to do so also in the case of actors-turned-politicians who often are puppets in the hands of various lobbies. While entertainer-politicians (like most politicians in general) may pose and propose all they want the harsh fact in our era of financial and consumerist capitalism is that it is the CEOs of the corporate world that dispose (ACTION $ CUT $ RETAKE $).

No wonder then that actors who play the ‘good guy’ on the screen often end up as villains while in power. In the case of actors-turned-politicians it takes a longer time for the public to see beyond the gloss and glamour and hence their utility as a front for vested interests that really run the affairs of any country.

Having said all this I now have a premonition about where the future of this trend of entertainers- turned-politicians is headed. I don’t know if many noticed but while sections of the global media were doing all that hooplah about Reagan’s demise there was another event of immense planetary significance that got buried amidst their elegies. And I am not talking about the planet Venus crossing the Sun (who cares about those Stars!)

What I am referring to is that a day before the Reagan funeral the venerable Donald Duck turned seventy years of age. If indeed the United States has lost a ‘national treasure’ in Ronald, as Bush Jr. avers, then may I suggest that they have the right replacement there in Donald ?

Surely, given his contributions to making America a superpower (entertaining potential foreign dictators in their childhood for eg.,), as a natural born quackery expert and with his ability to duck when in trouble Donald would make a good presidential candidate someday. Just in case I am accused of partisanship let me add that Mickey Mouse would make a good candidate also, and to counter any allegations of a gender bias- let me propose Daffy and Minnie too.

Seriously, why discriminate against cartoons? Most voting citizens get to know their leaders these days only on television screens and would care little if they were real flesh and blood characters or merely animated drawings.

Consider the advantages of having a cartoon as President or Prime Minister. For example, I don’t know of a single cartoon character anywhere who has been accused of authorizing war crimes, genocide or even simple torture. Cartoons don’t have friends in the arms or oil industry to promote and are not known to send off underage youth to die in distant wars.

Nor is there a cartoon who fumbles his lines at live press conferences (the greatest of all crimes) and many of them are in fact known for their ‘humor’ in times of tragedy, ‘witty’ retorts to serious questions and ‘optimism’ in the face of global catastrophe. And above all, the good thing about cartoons as politicians is that they will never die and nobody will ever have to spend money or time organizing an elaborate funeral.

Of course, all these arguments about turning cartoons into political candidates are valid only if we never ever make the mistake of giving children the right to vote. After all, they might elect someone sensible and screw-up SHOWTIME.

Satya Sagar is a journalist based in Thailand. He can be contacted at [email protected]

Leave a comment