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On October 27, 1964, American television viewers watched Ronald Reagan deliver a presidential campaign speech that’s widely considered one of the most effective in political history. The former actor wasn’t speaking on his own behalf; he was tub-thumping for Senator Barry Goldwater, the Republican Party’s flag-bearer in the imminent election.
“The Founding Fathers knew a government can’t control the economy without controlling people,” said Reagan. “And they knew when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose. So we have come to a time for choosing.”
Choose they did, though not Goldwater, who lost the election to Lyndon B. Johnson in a landslide. But the speech vaulted Reagan to the apex of American politics. A year later, he announced his candidacy for governor of California, then went on to become the 40th president of the United States.
Reagan wasn’t the first actor to go into politics — he’d even campaigned for a more experienced one, Helen Gahagan Douglas, the star of 1935’s She and a member of the House of Representatives, who lost her 1950 bid for the U.S. Senate to Richard Nixon — but Reagan was by far the most successful actor-politician, and he paved the way for a host of others.
In the four decades since he entered the White House, many actors have toyed with running for office. Some have done so, and a few have won. A great deal of these are highly principled people who fight for a cause, regardless of how much it damages their careers. They’re activists, amateurs in the best sense of the word.
And that’s precisely why I don’t want them to run. Now, more than ever, is the time for professionals.
If Reagan helped open the doors for actors, the internet has blasted them wide open for amateurs. Ever since the web tore down the walls separating amateurs and professionals, a torrent of talent has poured forth, challenging orthodoxy and creating a two-way stream between those who supply information and those who consume it. They’ve erased the hard line between the trained and the untrained.
Reality TV has furthered this. Amateurs are front and center of some of the most watched shows on the air, from American Idol to The Voice. Crucial to these shows are two assumptions: first, that an amateur can be as good as a professional; and second, that the gap between the two isn’t all that big. With a tiny bit of help from a Miley Cyrus or a Simon Cowell, you too can become a star. So why spend years perfecting your craft?
This is America’s Horatio Alger dream on steroids, a rags-to-riches story for the age of ADHD. It’s a slap in the face to Malcolm Gladwell and his oft-quoted line about the 10,000 hours of grind you need to put in to be good, “the magic number of greatness.”
Sure, a classical pianist needs 10,000 hours of practice. And true, a neurosurgeon should spend at least that much time on his medical studies. But anyone else? Who cares?
I’d be the first to question Gladwell’s number. There are people who simply have talent, and when you encounter it, raw and vital and fresh, it takes your breath away. Still, even they must hone their gifts. Laurence Olivier would go into the fields for hours at a time just to do vocal exercises. John Ford toiled for years in the studio system before developing his distinct style. And The Guardian’s Alan Rusbridger has written a whole book about how long it took him to get close to mastering Chopin’s “Ballade No. 1” (Play It Again: An Amateur Against the Impossible).
It’s ironic that Reagan, who opened the floodgates for amateurs, was no amateur himself: he served multiple terms as president of the Screen Actors Guild before becoming governor. He knew what many of us have forgotten: experience counts.
I understand that experience is no proof of success. Too much experience can paralyze us in the face of vast complications. Sometimes it takes an outsider to break the mold, an Alexander the Great to cut the Gordian Knot. But that doesn’t mean you need no experience at all. Just because you and I may agree on morals and principles doesn’t qualify you to run the country, or any part of it.
I have nothing against actors running for office. The finest are highly intelligent; they must understand psychology and the human psyche, probe deeply into the meaning of things, and be open to all sorts of new ideas. Oprah Winfrey, Cynthia Nixon, Ben Affleck, George Clooney — nobody would question their intellect.
But I don’t want them running the government. I want someone who’s not just bright, but also effective. I want a driver who understands the car.
Democrats are throwing away their best card if they ignore this and jump on the bandwagon of celebrity. Simply because Donald Trump showed that a man of no political experience could win our highest office doesn’t mean he showed one can also govern.
This is no time for another apprentice. Hollywood shouldn’t be seduced by the cult of the amateur, the cult it has helped foist on the world.
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