PAUL DUNN: Chaplin: Now There Was a Real Celebrity
There's an old adage that seems to apply to modern American politics: If your opponent is soaring to new heights in popularity, take immediate steps to bring him down, even into the gutter with yourself.
Two weeks ago, I'd expressed the now-forlorn hope that since John McCain was a U.S. senator running against another senator, both would take the high road in the 2008 campaign. The ink was barely dry on my column for The Pilot when McCain and heavy-handed operatives left over from the last Bush campaign decided Obama was flying too high.
The prognosis: Gunner McCain should shoot the political meteor down, using any missile at hand.
McCain and his motley crew of mud slingers, seeing a quarter of a million cheering Berliners waving American flags and shouting for Obama, obviously overreacted and totally flipped out.
The result: the sleazy and sophomoric Britney Spears -- Paris Hilton attack, an ad the sometimes hapless GOP candidate then praised with the words, "We're proud of that commercial."
Each time the unfortunate ad runs, it reminds American voters of two glaring facts: Obama is a bright political phenomenon admired by millions around the world as well as in his own country, and Sen. McCain is desperate to besmirch that glowing image and apparently willing to stoop to new campaign lows to do so. His latest Web site message features Charlton Heston, the late National Rifle Association spokesman, as Moses crossing the Red Sea. Will Joe Izuzu or Joey Buttafucco be next?
Celebrity and its exploitation are interesting phenomena. In America we tend to salute and reward the suddenly famous or notorious, whether persons of sleaze, criminal behavior or deserved fame from grand achievement.
Think of all the Nixon felons who still capitalize on their dubious reputations. Convicted Watergate criminals John Dean, Chuck Colson, and G. Gordon Liddy go on and on like the ubiquitous Energizer Bunny.
Where would Oliver North be today but for his sordid participation in the Iran-Contra scandal? Surely Bill Clinton's outrageous fees for speeches soared in no small part due to his titillating sexual liaisons with Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones and Monica Lewinski.
They rarely give tickertape parades for the likes of Admiral Byrd, Charles Lindbergh, "Wrong Way" Corrigan, Bobby Jones, Ike Eisenhower or Gen. Douglas MacArthur anymore.
By the time the famous have been immediately exposed and exploited on network and cable TV, the National Enquirer and People Magazine, they're old news and a parade merely anti-climactic.
Exceptions were deservedly granted when the unlikely New York Giants won the 2007 Super Bowl against the undefeated New England Patriots 17-14. That's healthy celebrity.
Is the McCain strategy of using celebrity to attack Obama a smart one? Do his advisers feel that the senator as a former prisoner of war is immune from rebuttal?
It is interesting to note that neither Hilton nor Spears consented to the use of their names or images. Had the late perpetual ham and right-wing devotee Heston been asked, he would have been delighted, I'm sure.
When one thinks of film images, one of the most famous images of the 20th century is eerily like that of McCain, and it is that of the remarkable comedic actor, mime, director, Sir Charles Spencer "Charlie" Chaplin.
Take away the toothbrush moustache and he's a spitting image of the Senator. They even walk alike.
There all resemblances end. Charlie was a proud progressive all his life, championing civil rights and the plight of the poor.
McCain's politics have been far to the right in the Goldwater-Reagan tradition and 180 degrees from those of the famed comic actor.
In his heyday and long before McCain was conceived, Chaplin was the best-known face in the world.
During the five and a half years John McCain was a guest in the Hanoi Hilton, (ironically named after Paris' grandfather), Charlie Chaplin was in self-imposed exile from the United States.
He had been insulted and hounded by Joe McCarthy and his arch sidekick, J. Edgar Hoover.
The immigration authorities denied him a re-entry visa into the U.S. after a trip to his native England.
Chaplin spent his remaining years in Vevey, Switzerland. He returned to the U.S. only once, in 1972, to be honored for his remarkable lifetime achievements by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The warm standing ovation he received lasted five minutes, the longest in Academy history.
Should Barack Obama and his up-to-now very serious advisers follow McCain's lead and use or misuse celebrities, living or dead, and their images against the senator from Arizona?
If so, they might start dusting off those priceless old black-and-white Keystone Studio images of Charlie.
It could be hilarious, but surely America is above such juvenile antics. One can only hope so.
Paul R. Dunn is the author of Touching Raw Nerves, University Press, and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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