Hollywood stars snag WH spotlight; critics question whether they shine too bright
The White House is seeing stars, with visits from the cast of “Ted Lasso” to chart-topping boy bands — but some critics are questioning whether sharing the spotlight with Hollywood heavyweights is the best image for President Biden to project.
The cast of the hit Apple TV+ show, including Jason Sudeikis, Hannah Waddingham and Brett Goldstein, turned heads at the White House press briefing ahead of a closed-door meeting with Biden to discuss mental health.
The “Ted Lasso briefing” — as some correspondents dubbed it — was sandwiched between another star-studded event — “Slow Hands” singer Niall Horan crooned at a St. Patrick’s Day performance at the White House and a National Medal of Arts ceremony which honored household names including Bruce Springsteen, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Mindy Kaling.
But even some Democrats have wondered if the revolving door of A-listers is sending the wrong message to the public, particularly during a week when Russian President Vladimir Putin held his own high-profile meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
“All presidents meet with celebrities, it’s just the reality,” one Democratic strategist said. “But it seemed like overkill recently. The White House shouldn’t feel like an Academy Awards show.”
Conservatives in particular have pounced, saying it projects the U.S. as weak.
“Xi and Putin having a five-hour conference about taking over the world while Joe Biden meets with the cast of Ted Lasso pretty much sums up the state of things at the moment,” Jesse Kelly, the conservative host of a nationally syndicated show bearing his name, wrote on Twitter.
On his show Monday night, Fox News host Tucker Carlson said the White House was “hijacking” the daily press briefing “to promote a TV show.”
The lack of an actual public event around mental health was baffling to some, in addition to the timing of the appearance of the Lasso cast in the briefing room.
“It did sort of look deeply unserious while Russia and China were meeting,” said Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak. “If you want to do a roundtable [on mental health] that’s one thing. But to bring five actors to the White House briefing room … that’s puzzling.”
Entertainers have hardly been a rare sighting in the Biden White House in recent months. In the past year, a parade of performers has circulated through 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., including James Taylor, Elton John, Cyndi Lauper and Selena Gomez.
BTS, the South Korean K-pop group, met with Biden and made a briefing room appearance to speak out against anti-Asian hate last May.
Other celebrities who have been eyed at the White House during Biden’s presidency include: Paris Hilton, Olivia Rodrigo, Matthew McConaughey, Ciara, the Jonas Brothers and Angelina Jolie.
It’s a drastic change from the start of the administration when COVID-19 kept visitors away from the executive mansion. Now, just like in pre-pandemic times, the prominent personalities have returned.
“It’s an exciting time,” said Kimball Stroud, of the D.C.-based fundraising and strategy firm Kimball Stroud & Associates, Inc.
“I think now that COVID is finally on the back burner, you’re seeing influencers and celebrities flock to D.C. to make a difference,” Stroud said.
There’s a long history of presidents rubbing elbows with famous faces, dating back to Woodrow Wilson’s presidency during World War I.
“They brought in some of the biggest silent movie stars of the day to do a fundraiser for war bonds on the Ellipse, and then those people visited Woodrow Wilson at the White House,” said Alan Schroeder, author of “Celebrity-in-Chief: How Show Business Took Over the White House.”
While Elvis once took a famous Oval Office photo with President Richard Nixon, there have generally been more Hollywood stars at the White House during a Democratic administration.
Former President Obama was famous for holding starry spectacles where people might be treated to a performance by the likes of Prince.
Celebrities — from Tom Hanks to Usher and Lin-Manuel Miranda — flocked to the Obama White House, which fielded a flood of press queries after photos emerged in 2010 of rapper Jay-Z and wife Beyonce Knowles taking a seat in the Situation Room.
The Obama White House was so immersed in pop culture and celebrity that TV host Bill Maher once quipped, “I don’t want my president to be a TV star.”
Much of Hollywood balked at former President Trump’s time in office, though he did entertain visits from Kim Kardashian, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West and right-wing stars Ted Nugent and Kid Rock.
The criticism that Biden faces from voices on the right is part of a familiar news cycle, Schroeder said, likening it to when President Clinton was accused of celeb overkill.
“There came a point where the press started writing very negative stories about this steady stream of people from Hollywood that were coming to the White House in a way that sort of made [Clinton] look a little frivolous, that he was spending almost too much time with his pals from show business,” Schroeder, a journalism professor at Northeastern University, said.
Another potential pitfall: Movie stars also don’t always stay on-script.
When Eartha Kitt was invited to speak at a 1968 luncheon hosted by Lady Bird Johnson, the “Santa Baby” singer faced intense backlash after unexpectedly speaking out against the Vietnam War.
But VIP visits can also shed a glamorous shine on both presidents and political issues.
“Let’s face it, if they had brought in the top five mental health experts in the United States — the doctors, and the professors and the academics — the media would not have covered it and it wouldn’t have been something that we’re talking about,” Schroeder said of the recent “Ted Lasso” event.
“But you bring in the cast of a popular Emmy Award-winning show, and you draw attention to whatever that issue is,” Schroeder said.
Stroud, who often serves as the go-between for celebrities when connecting them with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, said Hollywood stars “always magnify the cause. When celebrities are involved, they bring in press, they generate excitement, and they bring attention to whatever the cause is.”
Presidents can also “bask in the popularity of entertainers,” said Schroeder, and enjoy a “humanizing” effect from them.
“If we see [Biden] and we think, ‘Oh, he watches “Ted Lasso” too,’ and we watch “Ted Lasso,” It just makes these sort of aloof figures of power a little more relatable when they can tie themselves to pop culture,” Schroeder said of the 80-year-old commander in chief.
Asked if there’s any particular star who popped up at her job who truly excited her, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said, “I’ve had the opportunity of meeting a lot of amazing, talented artists. They’re clearly folks that I love.”
“But I guess I get so busy in the work, I don’t even think about it.”
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