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Beware the Celebrity

By Victor C. Wu

I still vividly remember November 4, 2008, the night Barack Obama was first elected president. I smiled and cheered as I watched history unfold on TV. It seemed almost surreal, like somebody who exemplified the ideals I held had conveniently arrived to lead the way forward. Change, as far as I could tell, was finally here.

Six years later, though, I can’t help but think I got caught up in the cult of the celebrity politician. I, like the majority of my peers, feel somewhat disillusioned with politics. That’s not only because of Obama. Lately, I’ve felt an eerie sense of déjà vu, as I’ve seen a similar political story play out again and again throughout the past few months.

It’s a familiar narrative: A rising star emerges who rapidly captures the national spotlight. We fixate on these politicians just as we do on Miley Cyrus or Justin Bieber, initially charmed by their new and exciting personalities. And therein lies the problem. If nothing else, these apparent stars are almost invariably bound to fall short of our inflated expectations. More troublingly, though, a politician’s celebrity can easily overshadow the expectation for actual substance—a preoccupation with appearing to govern well can interfere with actually governing well.

About four years ago, I came across a then-relatively unknown mayor named Cory Booker. I began learning about him from Wikipedia—Stanford, Rhodes Scholar, Yale Law School. I read his eloquent writings and watched his moving commencement speeches, replete with beautiful quotes from Langston Hughes. I soon enthusiastically liked his Facebook page, and over the years, I heard of his “superhero” feats shoveling snow for constituents and saving neighbors from burning buildings in his city of Newark, New Jersey.

Booker quickly became nationally famous as a young and talented social media mayor. I was impressed. When Booker ran for and won a seat in the Senate in 2013, I was among those who smiled and cheered, just as I did for Obama in 2008.

But as I was recently reminded, stardom can come at the cost of effective governance. The Newark-based Star-Ledger newspaper reported that in an 18-month period, Booker was out of state 21.7 percent of the time, making him an “absentee mayor.” This is probably in part because Booker, while still mayor, founded a New York-based tech startup in 2012, drawing on his influence with Silicon Valley leaders. Certainly, Booker’s national reach brought attention and resources to Newark, at least temporarily. However, it seems now as if Booker’s tenure was much more style than substance—today, he leaves behind revelations of major corruption and lack of oversight in his administration, along with a still-struggling city. As Columbia economist and former Booker finance director Brendan O’Flaherty put it, “He became a celebrity instead of a mayor.”

This same fetish for political celebrity drives the media frenzy surrounding Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey. Until recently, Christie was widely regarded as the Republican 2016 presidential frontrunner, praised as a dynamic leader focused on “achieving results” while his state ranked 47th in GDP growth with record poverty levels and high unemployment. This is, of course, not to mention the infamous “Bridgegate” scandal. Christie rightly seems in contention for the title of “America’s most overrated governor.”

We are obsessed with Christie not for any particularly distinguished performance as governor but because we like the pragmatic, street-fighter persona he has cultivated. I have to admit I found it pretty appealing. In retrospect, I feel embarrassed.

Of course, this phenomenon is by no means limited to two politicians from New Jersey. Ted Cruz’s meaningless but headline-grabbing Obamacare filibuster was fundamentally no different from the cults of personality Booker and Christie cultivated, and Cruz’s actions contribute to the same, broad disillusionment with politics. As long we remain infatuated with rockstars of political self-promotion, we will inevitably be disappointed. Just as we lose interest in celebrities, we lose interest in celebrity politicians. And just as we elevate celebrities and then complain when they disappoint, so, too, do we worship and later condemn politicians.

In an interview shortly after his election to the Senate, Booker optimistically proclaimed, “Well, we cannot afford to surrender to cynicism.” To be honest, though, it is somewhat difficult to resist cynicism in an era where appearance seems to supersede any tangible record of governance.

I unliked Cory Booker on Facebook a few weeks ago. It just felt too disingenuous to follow his page and see the various inspirational posts of the day, knowing that I was no longer quite sure what to think of them. I got too caught up with the superhero mystique to look a bit deeper and wait before latching on to a fad. In essence, I imagined a political ideal probably too good to be true.

I think now I’m done with celebrity politicians, I’m done assigning lofty expectations to people I hear about based on some ephemeral sense of charisma. I’ve been let down enough times that I’ve learned the old saying “buyer beware.”

Or at least, until the next guy comes along.

Victor C. Wu ’16, a Crimson editorial executive, is a social studies concentrator in Cabot House.

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