January 2010


After the stunning election of Scott Brown to the United States Senate, I watched a tired Brown field questions about his unlikely victory enabling him to lay claim to what some pundits had described as the “Kennedy” seat. The exhausted Brown answered numerous questions but two lodged in my mind: how seriously was he considering a run for the presidency? Could he beat, in his view, the incumbent? To his credit, Brown didn’t take the bait. Six weeks ago, Brown was obscure and unlikely to win….very little recognition or possibility. But then, the stars aligned, and now we have Senator Brown Goes to Washington!

By all counts, he seems genuine, smart and passionate about making a difference. But I have a different concern, more about what this represents in a broader cultural sense rather than Brown’s victory itself. My worry centers on the notion of celebrity versus real accomplishment.

Does ‘celebrity’ status, irrespective of qualification, cause one to think that he or she be entitled to some status unmerited by past achievements?

My Musing today has little to do with Brown, but rather relates to celebrity culture generally.

Years ago, the pop artist Andy Warhol, observed that eventually everyone will get their 15 minutes of fame. Wow. Was he right. Look at the ravenous pursuit of fame that goes on today. Whether it be balloon boy or the Virginia couple, the Salahi’s, who crashed the White House State Dinner, something strange is going on. More and more people are taking incredible personal risks to be noticed, defining themselves not by accomplishment, but rather by how they can become famous and known in the shortest amount of time with the least amount of work. Our television networks are complicitous and now have scores of shows that celebrate shortcuts to fame and fortune. Pity the poor sap who beavers away in obscurity to support his family.

Some years back I discussed this subject with the late ABC anchor Peter Jennings. We were noting the proliferation of ‘reality’ television shows and how they were growing exponentially. Peter felt that it was just the beginning since such shows were so inexpensive to produce and also appealed to a side of many, a darker side which longs to be famous and adulated. Yes, I want it now! Presently, we are seeing people go to all lengths to get noticed even if they are utterly humiliated and sometimes destroyed in the process –i.e. American Idol.

When you see the likes of Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton who frankly are famous for being famous, you wonder where this is all leading.

The senior Washington post columnist, Richard Cohen, recently wrote an insightful piece on John Edwards. Cohen fears that we have become a culture where celebrity trumps long records of achievement. He accepts the fact that he was taken in by Edwards who ‘appeared’ to be bright and passionate, but in hindsight was more of an empty suit. Cohen says it this way:

My early [quite positive] impressions of Edwards faded to disillusion as his colleagues and friends described him as oddly incurious, averse to homework, often unprepared. When he launched his second presidential campaign, we met again -- and I was dumbfounded by what he did not seem to know about poverty, his proclaimed field of expertise. The man was mostly smile.

Two weeks back, several of us had breakfast with former Senator Sam Nunn in New York. Sam is a longtime friend with a razor-sharp mind and real gravitas. He curiously left the Senate some years back. So naturally we inquired about his view of the state of the Senate, the US and on a personal level, why he chose to exit public life. All three of these questions were interconnected for him. He described that when he was in the Senate he worked and worked to get it right. He tried to be prepared for the various responsibilities that laid heavy on his shoulders. In his case it was nuclear proliferation and its global dangers. Sam described the utter impossibility of members spending the time necessary to master the subject matter before them. The reason cited was that the real job of a senator today is focused primarily on fundraising, television and name recognition. The era of the dutiful Senator, mastering policy and cutting deals, seems less important today as compared to public recognition and branding. In the past there were certainly celebrity politicians. Yet, the bulk of the elected officials seemed more focused on the peoples’ business. Things have clearly changed. As a consequence, the Senate staff has now become the nexus where power and influence resides. Nunn felt that he could make a greater difference outside of the hallowed senate chamber. Curious and sad, a cautionary tale, but a sign of our times.

There are no clear answers to the challenge before us. There are certainly wonderful and heartening aspects of instant celebrity. For instance, when Susan Boyle from Britain was thrust from her English village to the top of the pop stars by placing second on American idol. Good for her….I hope.

When you read some of Thomas Friedman’s writings on China and India, you get a sense that individuals from such nations are hungry, willing to sacrifice to achieve their objectives. My concern is that we not spend so much time celebrating the instant success and save some appreciation for the tortoise as well as the hare. The Florida quarterback phenom Tim Tebow will likely go down as the greatest college football talent of all time. He wrote my college golfer son a short note last spring: “Hard work trumps talent every time.” In his case, he has both. But I loved that his focus was on what you can control rather than what is out of your scope of influence. Our children have the I.Q.s and skills that they possess...much or most of that is set. But what you can do is focus upon your unique advantages and work and work to be better.

The celebrity culture coronates quickly and is usually heartbroken. In the long run, individuals of character with a solid work ethic prevail. Yet to many of them, it seems a long and lonely vigil to make a success of life. Image and marketing is not everything despite what we hear. Other things matter. Let’s look for ways to celebrate those!

There is a lot more to say on this subject since variations of our celebrity culture permeate all aspects of American life. The first step is to be alert to dangers of taking short cuts to achieve things. And to have important discussions with our family and friends about what constitutes true success. The sad thing about instant celebrity success is that you never feel secure in your standing. You feel that lurking nearby is another instant celebrity about to take your spot. Look out Jonas brothers.

Please send me your own thoughts on both ways that we can understand our culture today and also strategies to stay grounded. I will follow up with further thoughts in February.

Peace, doug


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