When stars visit, lawmakers come running

When little Timmy sat in Social Studies class humming “I’m Just a Bill,” he probably learned all the basics of how a bill becomes a law. But in this age of Bono and Angelina, Schoolhouse Rock may want to update its famed jingle to include a key step: Solicit the requisite celebrity.

Celebrities are turning up everywhere these days in politics. Last week, “Law & Order” star Sam Waterston appeared on MSNBC’s “Hardball” with Chris Matthews, who said he revered the actor for his political involvement. Actor Ben Affleck was another celebrity who turned up on Hardball this summer—when he also received the equivalent of a big political kiss from Matthews.

Affleck’s newest movie hardly received a passing mention before Matthews got right down to the Oscar winner’s real area of expertise: the 2008 presidential candidates. Matthews asked Affleck to judge a debate clip of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (R) “not just as a student of politics, but as somebody who understands the acting profession.” (Shouldn’t that be the other way around?)

CNN has also attracted celebrities for political segments. Who can forget when Wolf Blitzer looked to Donald Trump in March for his unofficial authority on the Bush administration and the 2008 presidential race? Trump was torn between ex-New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (R) and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.).

But talk show hosts aren’t the only ones bowing to Hollywood. Lawmakers are as well. The road to passing legislation in Congress is an uphill and highly congested one. Of the 8,621 bills introduced in the 108th Congress, only 498—or 6 percent—became law. Politicians and agencies like the United Nations are increasingly introducing stars as spokespeople to spotlight their cause du jour. Celebrities can highlight an issue, attract greater congressional attention, and, most importantly, bring the media stampeding like 13-year-old girls to a Justin Timberlake concert.

“Celebrity has a certain magic and attraction,” says Jennifer Parmalee of the U.N. World Food Program (WFP), which recently tapped Drew Barrymore to be a goodwill ambassador to hunger. “Look at the headlines.”

And by headlines, she means US Weekly, folks.

People and other gossip tabloids are increasingly mentioning celebrities and their political crusades. People has a weekly circulation base of almost 4 million, and during red carpet season, the online magazine might have website traffic of 50 million page views per day. That means accessing a whole new sliver of the population who might not otherwise keep up with legislative wrangling. TMZ, the online paparazzi site, is said to be opening a D.C. bureau and launching a sister site, TMZDC, to capitalize on the increasing celebrity of politicians as well as the bona fide stars who grace their offices.

Extra publicity for a politician probably doesn’t hurt either.

“It’s a win-win,” says Joel Aberbach, political science professor at UCLA. “If you’re a liberal democrat and George Clooney shows up to lobby you, and there’s a nice picture of him entering your office being greeted by you, what’s the problem?”

Celebrity showcasing is not limited to a particular party, he adds. Rather, party lines just tend to determine the type of celebrity being showcased.

But lawmakers say it’s more than just about getting a nice picture, even though they do take plenty.

“The goal here is to leverage the celebrity of the individual to bring attention to a broader cause or broader issue,” says Joe Shoemaker, spokesman to Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). These celebrities don’t pretend to be experts, he says, but they just realize that where they go, the cameras follow. So why not lead them to a cause? And inevitably, a politician?

Julia Roberts drops by the office of Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) occasionally to talk about Rhett Syndrome, Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) recently lunched with Sally Field to discuss osteoporosis. Durbin gets visits from Drew Barrymore and Bono on global hunger and AIDS, while Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) recently joined Christina Ricci at a rally for rape victims.
And of course there’s that rare hybrid animal, Al Gore. The “policelebrity” received international press when he testified before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on global warming.

Politicians on Capital Hill seem to enjoy this symbiotic relationship. Take Durbin, a heavyweight when it comes to celebrity liaisons. He’s been working with U2 frontman Bono on global AIDS for more than five years and had Don Cheadle testify on African genocide—a topic that also brought Ryan Gosling into his Celebster network. He has also teamed up with Drew Barrymore on hunger. When Durbin’s staff held an initial press conference on legislation funding a U.N. school feeding program, three reporters showed up, according to Shoemaker. Three weeks later, Drew Barrymore attended a press conference on the bill. This time, more than two dozen reporters—with cameras—arrived.

Star involvement can also offer a nice break from the stiff, tightly collared world of the Hill. Shoemaker’s recall his favorite “Bono moment” when Durbin and the U2 frontman swapped sunglasses after a long day of congressional meetings. The senator posed for a shot in the rockstar’s iconic shades.

Of course, the picture now hangs in Durbin’s office.

As seen with Durbin, being a member of Congress doesn’t make you immune to being star struck. Just ask the congresswoman from Sin City.

“The entire staff has pictures,” Berkley beams. She notes that the office recently posed for the camera with light-middleweight world boxing champion Floyd Mayweather Jr. “It’s fun; it’s exciting. They’re celebrities.”

Earlier this summer, Berkley met with Fran Drescher and Star Jones, along with Sally Fields. The congresswoman clearly enjoys the revolving door of celebrities who stream into her office. But it’s about the issues, not the fanfare, she maintains.

“Having a celebrity like Sally Field here on Capitol Hill taking the message to my colleagues is remarkable,” says Berkley.
“It bumps up the visibility of the issue in a way that no hearing on Capitol Hill could possibly accomplish.”

But even the added visibility of a megastar doesn’t always guarantee a bill’s passage. These folks aren’t superheroes—they just sometimes play one on TV. Even the Angelina Jolie’s lobbying couldn’t help a 2002 bill protecting unaccompanied alien minors pass make it beyond the Senate.

But even if a piece of legislation doesn’t get signed, celebrity backing serves another key purpose: Increased donations.

Barrymore collaborated with Durbin as part of her recent U.N. ambassadorship. When she appeared on CNN in May to discuss the WFP, donations soared. The program received approximately $30,000 in donations referencing her CNN appearance—which meant that in five days, the WFP collected as much as for the entire month of April.

“Someone like Drew can put a human face on [the issue],” says WFP spokeswoman Parmalee. “And of course, she has a platform we can only dream of: Millions of people have seen her movies, love her, respect her. And they listen.”

For Berkley, who grew up watching “Gidget” and “The Flying Nun,” having someone like Field on that osteoporosis platform is like having a lifelong friend there. She thinks her constituents will feel the same way.

“They’re going to see this woman they’re very familiar with, that they’ve known all their life” encouraging them to get tested for osteoporosis, Berkley says.

Most politicians seem to enjoy the star tracks on Capitol Hill, but there are always exceptions. In 2002, Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) skipped a Senate Environment and Public Works clean air subcommittee hearing in which Backstreet Boy Kevin Richardson testified on the subject of mountaintop removal mining. Voinovich accused the panel of running a sideshow.

“It’s just a joke to think that this witness can provide members of the United States Senate with information on important geological and water quality issues,” Voinovich said at the time. We’re guessing Voinovich will not be getting a backstage pass to any Backstreet Boys’ Reunion Tour.

Of course, in the endless game of political chess, refusing to meet a celebrity may prove as tactical a move as posing for a celebrity photo. “Do you think [Voinovich] boycotted the meeting because he thought a Backstreet Boy was particularly ill-suited to testify?” asks Aberbach. “Or do you think he thought it might be beneficial to have a nice story that he didn’t show up at the hearing because he didn’t approve of this guy?”

To be sure, there are plenty of celebrity shenanigans that might not bode well for a budding congressional relationship.
Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) may not want to pose for pictures with, say, recently arrested Lindsay Lohan at this point. And while the gossip magazines are beginning to give some ink to celebrity good works, the pages are still dominated by
personal lives, questionable behavior and questionable outfits.

“The other risk is you embrace some celebrity today and two weeks from now they’ve gotten themselves into some terrible jam over some piece of personal behavior,” Aberbach says. “It looks like you are, in some obscure way, linked to that.”
Good point.

Paris or Lindsay: don’t expect a call to come lobby any time soon.


CELEBRITIES AND THEIR CAUSES:

   
 CELEBISSUE
ORGANIZATION TITLE
Angelina Jolie   
Global refugees
United Nations / U.N. High Commission
for Refugees,Goodwill ambassador

Julia Roberts 
Rett SyndromeInternational Rett Syndrome Association /
Advocate

Drew Barrymore
Global hungerUnited Nations World Food Program /
Goodwill ambassador for hunger

Bono   
AIDS; poverty in AfricaOne Campaign, Jubilee 2000,
United Nations

Ryan Gosling   

Northern Ugandan genocide
ENOUGH! / Advocate
George Clooney 
Brad Pitt
Matt Damon
Don Cheadle  
Jerry Weintraub

Sudanese genocide   
Not On Our Watch: Darfur / Cofounders
Nicole Kidman   Global women’s rights  

United Nations Development Fund
for Women / Goodwill ambassador
Nick Carter   Dolphin awareness 

United Nations / Special ambassador
Kevin Richardson
(Backstreet Boy)   

Air pollution   
Just Within Reach Foundation / Founder
Katie Couric
Colon cancer    National Colorectal Cancer Research
Alliance / Cofounder
Mary Tyler Moore 
Juvenile diabetes  

Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation
(JDRF) / International             chairman
Christina Ricci
Rape victims  Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network /
Spokeswoman
Muhammad Ali 
Parkinson’s disease  

Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center /
Founder
Michael J. Fox
Parkinson’s disease  

The Michael J. Fox Foundation for
Parkinson’s Research / Cofounder
Christie Brinkley
Nuclear-reactor safety    Standing for Truth About Radiation (STAR)
foundation / Trustee
Sally Field   

Osteoporosis    Osteoporosis drug Boniva / Spokeswoman
Fran Drescher

Cervical cancer  
Cancer Schmancer Movement / Founder
Sheryl Crow   
Breast cancer    Breast Cancer and Environmental Research
Act / Citizen lobbyist, advocate