Friday, May 04, 2007

Celebrities' political preening

Published: May 4, 2007 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

If the entertainment elite could remove the words "decorum" or "credentials" from Webster's Dictionary, many of them would assuredly do so.

Consider Sheryl Crow's April 21 performance during the White House Correspondents Association Dinner in Washington. Crow decided to accost presidential adviser Karl Rove and, in the process, impress Lord knows who, about her passion for the topic of global warming.

Recounting this is not an indictment of anyone concerned about global warming. Rather, the issue is public behavior (or, more precisely, public misbehavior) by entertainers with dubious qualifications but plenty of pluck and A-list invitations to do their public preening.

To be honest, I do have a double standard. That is, I'd have less of a problem with the Crow-Rove ordeal if, instead of a musician, a renowned climatologist from Yale had cornered Rove and a heated debate ensued. At least such an altercation, while still socially awkward, would have taken place between people with depth and a useful angle. Crow? Precisely whom does she represent? All she wanted to do was have some fun, I thought.

I guess our Midwestern sensibilities come through differently at local entertainment outlets. I have attended many plays at the Sunset Playhouse and the Marcus Center over the years, and not once did an actor stop a performance, turn up the lights and pass the hat to save spotted owls. Maybe they know we didn't come to hear the political cause du jour.

The correspondents dinner has been a painful penance for every administration. And the casualties are chosen in a non-partisan manner.

I'm not referring to good-natured ribbing but rather the type of thing spewed by now-disgraced radio jock Don Imus, who took the podium in 1996 and proceeded to caricature a sexual encounter between President Clinton and someone other than his wife, Hillary. All this done, of course, with the first couple seated next to Imus' lectern on national television.

No, a successful entertainment career doesn't mean you forfeit a right to public debate on serious issues. But it should mean that you make sense, that you espouse your views at a proper time and place and that you thoroughly understand what you are talking about. Bono, lead singer of the rock band U2, courts lawmakers for debt relief to impoverished nations, but he does so without making silly public displays or mindless pleas. Moreover, he has impressed government officials with a command of complicated issues. In short, he gets it. If you want to be taken seriously on world affairs, you need more than a Grammy and a choice table at the Washington Hilton.

Three years before the Imus debacle, we witnessed Richard Gere at the Academy Awards lapsing into a dreamy metaphysical trance to "send a message" to the people of Tibet, Deng Xiaoping and perhaps someone at a Dairy Queen in Vermont. We never heard what his message was, but afterward, 38 states wanted to revoke Gere's driving privileges.

Want another recent example? I never understood why Rosie O'Donnell occupies the airwaves, but after the Supreme Court upheld the federal partial-birth abortion ban, she decried on "The View" the lack of a "separation of church and state in America" because five Supreme Court justices happen to be Catholic.

With rigorous analytical thinking like that, who needs to stay in school? Not O'Donnell, who dropped out of college with a 1.62 grade-point average.

With O'Donnell vacating "The View," the state of political discourse in America just improved.