Heeeeeeeere's Bill!

Observations on political stars

Politicians are about to get big in popular culture. Within recent weeks, the BBC, inspired by the success of The West Wing, has invested £50m in a series of political dramas, while the former president Bill Clinton has met Hollywood executives to explore the idea of a daytime talk show.

The BBC's The Project, now in production, has been described as a "fictional drama set within a factual framework": the producers spent three years researching the machinations of Downing Street under Tony Blair, and the potential appeal of the two-part programme lies, as with The West Wing, in its semblance to reality.

Hollywood has already taken on a more overt political activism. The West Wing featured the exact policy initiatives pursued by the Clinton administration. (Indeed, the duty-bound cast even appeared at the Democratic National Convention.) A recent survey has shown that 66 per cent of Hollywood executives believe television entertainment should play a major role in promoting social reform.

But politicians haven't exactly been unresponsive to the call of Hollywood. Prominent Washington insiders have been moving to Hollywood in droves to serve as consultants, and the former Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos played co-host on a morning chat show before switching to a more high-minded political forum.

Then there are the late-night talk shows. Since Clinton's sax-playing stint on one such show and appearance on MTV, where a teenage girl asked whether he wore boxers or briefs ("Usually briefs"), the nation's top government officials are appearing in droves on chat shows and other popular culture entertainments.

Late-night talk shows have recently featured the vice-president, Dick Cheney, joking about hiding in an undisclosed location, and, as an explanation for President Bush's pretzel incident, the first lady, Laura Bush, quipped that he was practising "safe snacks". The US secretary of defence, Donald Rumsfeld, was encouraged to "put the hammer" on Osama Bin Laden by one host, while the secretary of state Colin Powell addressed questions from young people on MTV.

Bill Clinton anticipated and helped establish this political celebrity culture, where "the politics of personality" rather than "the politics of substance" have been institutionalised. In this climate, celebrity politicians, like entertainers, can move easily to the commercial arena. The former senator and Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole now feels comfortable enough with the American public to detail his erectile dysfunction while peddling Viagra. At least, when he's not too busy as the Pepsi-Cola spokesman, or plugging his books on any show with airtime to burn. Communists aren't above this kind of thing, either. The former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev made a commercial for Pizza Hut, which was released during America's ultimate sporting event, the Super Bowl.

For new Labour, deeply entangled in pop culture, a Bill Clinton Show might prove a perfect, life-saving import. An Oprah-style TV confessional, hosted by the ex-president, would be the ideal platform for the party to "rediscover its spirit within".

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