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Unconventional Wisdom: Do Politicians Have Celebrity-Envy?

Aired November 1, 2000 - 8:30 p.m. ET


JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN SENIOR ANALYST: What do famous actors and athletes have that politicians want and do any of these candidates have it? We're going to try to find out.

ANNOUNCER: UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM, with CNN's senior analyst Jeff Greenfield. Tonight's guests: actor Richard Dreyfuss, broadcaster and former baseball All-Star Keith Hernandez. and senior editor of "The New Republic," Michelle Cottle. Now, here's Jeff Greenfield in New York.

GREENFIELD: More than 30 years ago, as a young, very junior Senate aide, I went out to the airport in Washington to bring some papers to Robert Kennedy. He and his brother Ted were returning from a family gathering together and lots of people were gawking at them. But these two powerful, famous men were themselves gawking at Ted Williams, the former Boston Red Sox great.

Maybe it was memories of youthful adulation, but there's something about famous folks in other walks of life that politicians often crave. Maybe it's the kind of unconditional love that a star outfielder or a famed actor often receives as a matter of course, but is there something politicians have that these folks admire or envy or even desire for themselves?

We have, after all, an ex-Major League pitcher who's now a United States senator, an ex-football quarterback who's the leader of the House Republicans, an ex-NBA star who made a serious run for the presidency, and a former baseball team owner who may well be the next president.

As for actors, well, Warren Beatty decided not to run this year, but a fellow named Reagan did all right. We'll talk about this with former New York Mets star Keith Hernandez, an Academy Award-winning actor Richard Dreyfuss, and with an All-Star political journalist in Washington, Michelle Cottle of "The New Republic." And we'll look at predictions. It may be that this year, little children shall led us. We'll start it up right now.

Keith Hernandez, I think this is before your time with the Mets, but I wanted to begin by showing a picture which has a lot of political import. It's a picture from the New York Mets clubhouse -- you're familiar with that place -- the night the New York Mets won the National League pennant in 1969. I worked for John Lindsey at the time and we considered this a major political coup. John Lindsey was having a lot trouble with, you know, middle class, working class New Yorkers and for him to be celebrated by the Mets that way, we thought made a difference. Do you have a sense sometimes when politicians come out to Opening Day or they welcome you -- they win and there's a big parade down the Canyon of Heroes that they're looking for something from you guys that they don't have themselves?

KEITH HERNANDEZ, FORMER NEW YORK METS PLAYER: Well, I don't really feel that there's anything that I can give them personally other than -- just we're giving them some exposure, some television exposure. I mean, you always had presidents throw the first pitch when the Washington Senators were in Washington. Giuliani, our mayor, has always thrown out the first pitch. I wonder if Giuliani would have come in our -- the Mets clubhouse this year because he's such a Yankee fan.

I think it depends on the individual. Certainly it makes perfect sense, speaking of Lindsey, who was having trouble, to be seen in the clubhouse and the Mets as an underdog type team -- that the Yankees are kind of the elitist team. The Mets are kind of like the younger brother.

GREENFIELD: But there's also, it seems to me, a kind of -- if people look at politicians as kind of stuffed shirts, you know, phonies, they look at athletes as salt of the earth guys. And this may have been before the salaries exploded. I wonder if there isn't some way that they're trying to say something about themselves by being embraced by athlete?

HERNANDEZ: Well, I also -- I just think that politicians are like anybody else, like athletes or actors, and probably grow up like Giuliani, who obviously was a baseball fan. Nothing's more thrilling for me, and I'm a professional athlete, than to go into a New York Jet clubhouse after a game. I enjoy football or go into a clubhouse with the Knicks or whatever professional team. There's always something -- you know, that little boy comes out in you.

GREENFIELD: Maybe it's that simple. Now Richard, the Hollywood- Washington -- the Hollywood political connection has been talked about for many years. There's a famous line from a political -- from somebody, I guess a Hollywood guy, that said politics, you have to remember, is show business for ugly people.

But I think that you and I both have noticed that when a politician and an actor get together, it's almost as if each of them envies the other.

RICHARD DREYFUSS, ACTOR: I think, first, that actors and athletes are people's fantasy fulfillment. They're wishes comes true in some ways and they're stand-ins for other lives not lived. Politicians, though come with a huge amount of baggage -- of criticism. They desperately love actors and athletes because they're without criticism, in a sense, not constantly, and they yearn for that unadorned love. GREENFIELD: And so what do the actors admire about or envy about politicians?

DREYFUSS: Well, it's what -- actors want to be taken seriously. Actors want substance. We -- I want to be substantive and taken seriously. We all want to be adults because we know that within this well-loved art form of acting, we are really being very childlike. And so we yearn to be adults and to be taken seriously.

GREENFIELD: Well, we'll find out whether we should do that in a minute. Well, Michelle, I'd actually, just like I did yesterday, I promised the journalists among us that I was going to wrench this back to politics. And here's my point. Of the folks you see on the campaign this year, do either of them -- and maybe you want to throw in Ralph Nader, have that kind of adulation from their audience, from their would-be voters that an athlete, that an actor can have as a matter of course?

Is there any sense of the kind of John F. Kennedy excitement that we know about from 40 years ago? The jumping up and down on the part of the kids and some of the younger women who were so excite. Have you seen any of that out there?

MICHELLE COTTLE, SENIOR EDITOR, "THE NEW REPUBLIC": Well, on a large scale, there's no Clinton this year. Nobody has that glamour, that ability to just kind of woo the masses. I mean, at any political rally, you've got the die-hards faithful. So you have those cute little old ladies in Iowa swooning when George Bush walks into the room, but as far as just the pure glamour of a Kennedy or a Clinton, not this year.

GREENFIELD: Well, then let me turn the question a second -- and start with you, Michelle, and work back here. Should that be something that we want a politician to have? I mean, is it important -- I realize that people talk about charisma, but if you're asking a politician who might be president to make serious, weighty judgments about the world or the budget, does it really matter whether they can get people's hearts thumping that way?

COTTLE: Well, certainly you don't want that to be all that they have, but to some extent more and more what presidents are supposed to do is go out and convince the public of their agenda in order to get the mandate to get things done. And if you have a politician who people just immediately tune out the moment he opens his mouth, you're going to have a problem.

GREENFIELD: Interesting. But Keith, you know we sometimes think of athletes from another stereotype, you know, the 19-year-old high school drop-out, Shoeless Joe or Mickey Mantle from Commerce, Oklahoma, but most of you folks now are entrepreneurs, small businessmen. So when you look at these folks, what are you looking for?

HERNANDEZ: Well, I don't really necessarily look for what their image is on TV or their personality. I mean, I think you've got to look at the issues and that's -- obviously, television's a great medium and I sometimes wonder if Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill would have been able to get elected if there was this mass media that we have today. Those are men of substance.

So I look to the issues. The fact that Gore, they say, is boring and Bush looks like he's chewing on lemons, it doesn't bother me one bit because they're going to have to make decisions that are for the betterment of our country. I don't care if they if weigh 280 pounds or they look like an Adonis. On way or the other it will have no influence

DREYFUSS: I think the lack of glamour is always the problem of the other guy. You know, if it's your guy, it's not a problem. If it's the other guy, it's a probable. This is the television era. We've been living with it for 50 years. And we just have to get used to the fact that the images of politicians are important. It may not have anything to do with how they actually administrator the law, but it certainly does have a lot to do with being elected.

GREENFIELD: When -- I just want to ask you one other thing, Keith, because nowadays athletes are in Al Gore's famous top 1 percent. I mean, the days when they made $8,000 a year and had to work in beer warehouses is long gone. Does that mean that the athletes you know, and I'm not asking for names here, are more Republican than say we might think?

HERNANDEZ: Well, I don't really -- I couldn't answer that question because it's just -- I don't ask, particularly this election. If you talk about politics and you've got a Republican and a Democrat, it always ends up in a shouting match. I mean, this is a very, very emotionally charged election.

It's a very important election so I tend to stay away from that. Certainly, when I came up I made $16,000 -- $16,500 a year. And that carried me through the year, but certainly athletes today now with the minimum salary at $250,000, I would think -- and a lot of them are making 8, 9, 12 million dollars a year. I don't know what their affiliation would be, but certainly they are in the upper bracket.

GREENFIELD: We're going to take a break, and when I return I'm going ask Richard Dreyfuss about a particular aspect of the Hollywood political connection. But Michelle, from your observation, is anybody out there drawing a big crowds for these candidates that you can think of off-hand, whether actors or athletes? Are they out there in force now in the last days of the campaign?

COTTLE: Well, they're talking about who's got Christie Brinkley and who's got Bo Derek, so certainly they expect that glamour to be pulling people in.

GREENFIELD: Interesting possible cabinet choices. Our panel will be back in just a moment. Please stay with us.


GREENFIELD: And welcome back to our unconventional look at election 2000. I'm talking with actor Richard Dreyfuss, Academy Award winner. Broadcaster, former Major League Baseball, player Keith Hernandez, he's the first baseman who did not let the ball go through his legs in the 1986 series. Sorry, Boston. And with "The New Republic," senior editor Michelle Cottle, she joins us from Washington.

When Bill Clinton welcomed, I think it was the NBA champions to the White House one year, one observant fellow, himself a former athlete, told me that Clinton had said, in public, introduced himself, he said, you know, in high school, I was the fat kid in the band.

And this fellow said that told me a lot of what I needed to know about Bill Clinton and why he behaved the way he did. There are some folks who think that a lot of politicians seek office in part, psychologically, for the kind of adulation they never got at a time when, say, athletes and maybe young actors were getting it. What do you think?

DREYFUSS: I think it's true. I think some actors do too. It's just that, you know, when you seek a position as a movie star, it doesn't have nuclear consequences.

GREENFIELD: Well, I've heard about pictures being a bomb but not that way.

DREYFUSS: So, it's perfectly possible and probably true that a guy like Clinton starts from the standpoint of being the fat kid in the band. And that's what he's always looking to assuage. He's always looking to make that better for himself.

GREENFIELD: See, I don't know, Keith, but it seems to me that if you're an athlete and you -- that's one of the first things when you're a young man that people notice you are better than they are at, that they will admire. You know, the smartest kid in school doesn't always get cheered, he often gets beaten up. But the athlete gets the glory.

Does that make it easier as a grown up to not seek that, having had it when you're really young? or do you find that it's something you want to get for the rest of your life?

HERNANDEZ: Well, I think that it depends on the various stages of your life. At this stage of my life, no, but, you know, I was very young and shy in my early 20s and I didn't find myself until I won the MVP at 25 years of age, so it was almost like self esteem based on performance, which is that good or bad? At least it put me over the hump and I became a totally different person. I realized that the world wasn't a dangerous place and I could go out there and socialize with everybody. But until that point, I was just a shy kid hiding in the corner.

GREENFIELD: Now, Michelle, when you, again, to get this back to campaign 2000, do either of these candidates strike you as people who are in real need of the kind of adulation, of the kind of enveloping love that we've been talking about here?

COTTLE: At the risk of degenerating in psycho-babble, everybody talks about how Al Gore is always trying to live up to the image that his dad had of him, whereas W is always talking about how his parents gave him unconditional love and he's always had that ability to have a big circle of friends around him, whereas Gore has been kind of a loner. So, if you want to reduce it to that kind of thing, then Bush wouldn't necessarily need this as much as Gore.

GREENFIELD: But you know, I grant you that we want to avoid psycho-babble, but 25 years ago, I think it was, James David Barber, a very well known political scientist wrote a book called "Presidential Character" where he said it was important to try to figure out this stuff out about these people because they might act in ways that would be either good or bad, depending on their character.

So, I guess the question is, does this conversation, does the idea that maybe some politicians seek this kind of affection, where you could either say that it's good, because they will please the public or it's bad because they'll go off the rails?

COTTLE: And they'll wind up like Bill Clinton, seeking the affection in all the wrong places.

DREYFUSS: You have to remember, this is an old story. This is a cliche as old as American politics, that there are politicians who seek love and seek approval and have that in mind. It's not a modern invention and it wasn't born of this generation of politicians. It's something that has to do with the cycle of elections. People are constantly having to go out in front of people to seek their approval every four years, every two years, every six years. And those things, that requires an enormous -- Jacqueline Kennedy once said, anybody who seeks the presidency must have a fundamental flaw in his character. If you seek these offices, you are on the road to -- you're working within some neurotic groove to begin with.

GREENFIELD: So, in other words, if you've gotten all the self esteem and love can you by the time you're 18 as a high school quarterback or 25 as an MVP, does this suggest that the fires are banked? that you just don't need it? that you're after other stuff?

HERNANDEZ: Well, we all like to get patted on the back, I think no matter what. I mean, even in my veteran years when it was expected of me almost like my manager, Davey Johnson, at the time, never really kind of praised me because it was kind of, my performance was kind of expected, but I think when I got a big hit and he came and patted me on the back and said great job, Keith, that made me feel good. Even though I had, years in and years out, put good service in and I knew when the year was over I was going to this and do that, but it was always good to get the adulation and the compliment from your manager.

GREENFIELD: One thing you guys do share in common both with a politician is that what you do, you do in public, for good or ill. And so, there are plenty of people willing to tell what you have done wrong, right? including that play at first that was lousy. Does it give you any more sympathy for politicians to realize that they are working this way?

DREYFUSS: Well, one has a little understanding of it. The problems of a politician are -- they're pretty complex. It's pretty complex. It's not the same as actors. An actor is not criticized. An actor is turned away from at a certain point or he becomes -- he stays on cable television. It's not the same thing. A politician has to stay very current and very popular or else he is kicked out, booted out.

GREENFIELD: Well, but it's also true, Keith, I mean you've had this experience both for good and ill. You get up the first three times and strike out and they are booing you and telling you to go home, you bum, and then you hit the game winning hit and you're a hero. It seems to me, one of the things that would do is give you a somewhat restrained view of public opinion. You know how fast it can turn.

HERNANDEZ: Yes, but I think in the political arena, it's a little bit different than the baseball or the sports world or in the acting world. I think it's far more important, the political arena is far more important than Hollywood or professional sports.

GREENFIELD: One thing, also, Michelle, that strikes me as fundamentally different, and I think that's why a lot of political people at least in another generation were so drawn to sports is that you can't spin the result. You know what I mean? You can argue whether Bobby Valentine should have lifted Al Leiter in the ninth inning, but you can't spin. You can't say he really won if you just count the score differently.

Speaking of which, Michelle, where do you see the counting going on now as we get to the last? I know this is a hell of a segue, but where do you see the counting going on now? What are you being told by the different camps as to why their guy is going to prevail?

COTTLE: Well, I think with the Gore people it tends to be more the fear factor. No matter what people are telling pollsters, when they get into that booth and have to think about who they want in charge for the next four years, they are going to go with the person that they know to be qualified, that they know has the most experience, and you know, personality out the window. And the Bush people just see people wanting a new start and, you know, all of the basic campaign cliches, a uniter, not a divider, a new tone in Washington. I mean, they each have their little spiel.

But that said, unlike sports, perhaps, there's going to be a lot of finger pointing and analyzing as to which candidate did better, but kind of who on the candidate's staff should have made this commercial different or should have had him focus more on populism or less on populism.

So I think in that way it's going to be a little bit different. It's not just black or white as to who won.

GREENFIELD: Now, one thing I do notice is the politicians and political journalists all the time use sports cliches to describe politics, right? We're in the ninth inning, we're in the fourth quarter, that was a slam dunk, nobody hit a home run, nobody got knocked out. I've never heard a sports figure use a political analogy. I've never heard him say, god, I pitched like a substitute amendment on the floor of the House of Representatives.

DREYFUSS: But you will now. That's a good one.

GREENFIELD: It might tell us something about the future, but it also may tell us about whether people are more attracted to sports, you know, as a leisure time activity. They voluntarily...

DREYFUSS: Everyone -- if you woke everyone in the United States up at 3 o'clock in the morning, they'd all want to be Keith Hernandez.


DREYFUSS: Only a quarter of them would want to be Bill Clinton or George W. Bush.

GREENFIELD: And even fewer would probably want to be a political journalist, but that's OK. We can live with that.

Which brings us, in a sort of odd way, to the end of this discussion. We're out of time. We're going to wrap it up.

I want to thank my guests: broadcaster, former Major League Baseball player, All-Star, Keith Hernandez, Academy Award-winning actor Richard Dreyfuss, and Michelle Cottle of "The New Republic" in Washington. Thanks for joining us.

And now, speaking of errors, a correction: Last night, I said that New York Governor Charles Evans Hughes had narrowly lost to Woodrow Wilson in 1916. Actually, he left the governor's chair in 1910 to become a Supreme Court justice. He resigned from that job to seek the presidency.

There's a simple explanation for this mistake: rank carelessness. You deserve better. Sorry.

In a minute, some nearly foolproof election prognostications courtesy of the sports pages.


GREENFIELD: Finally, the urge to predict elections is a lot like the urge to mate. It's genetically encoded, often irresistible, and often the source of some very embarrassing behavior. So what signs and portents are abroad in this land of ours today?


GREENFIELD (voice-over): Well, you could begin with academic models that purport to bring scientific accuracy into this often-messy process. These models rely heavily on economic factors and presidential job approval ratings. And just about all of these models predicted an Al Gore victory months ago, with admirable precision.

Gore would win 52.6 percent of the two-party vote, said Professor Michael Lewis-Beck of the University of Iowa. No, said Professor Thomas Holbrook of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, Gore will get 59.6 percent of the two-party vote.

And just today, "The New York Times" reported that the Dow Jones average between the end of July and the end of October, a usually accurate predictor of past elections, says that Al Gore will win.

A less scientific but often accurate method is to ask kids. They presumably reflect their parents' political views, though certainly not in my house. The Nickelodeon cable network did just that, and the response by some 330,000 students produced a 55-45 Bush win. It's been right the last three elections. Scholastic Incorporated polled more than 350,000 kids. They gave it to Bush by 54 to

41. And "The Weekly Reader," whose poll has been right every election but one since 1956, polled more than half a million kids. Bush won that poll by a huge 65.8 to 32.6 margin.

Now, in keeping with part of today's discussion, how about sports? There was a time when the World Series was a an infallible guide to the presidential election. From 1952 to 1976, every time an American League team won the Series, the Republicans won the White House. Every time, a National League team won the Democrats won the White House.

But in 1980, Ronald Reagan overcame the National League Philadelphia Phillies victory to win the White House and break this string.

Now, however, comes another predictive tool from a different sport.


AL MICHAELS, ANNOUNCER: ... interesting to know, if the Skins win tonight, it'll be Gore. If Tennessee wins tonight, it'll be Bush.


GREENFIELD: As revealed on ABC's "Monday Night Football," every time the Washington Redskins have won their last home game before the election, the incumbent party has won the White House. Every time they lost, the incumbent party has lost the White House.

Well, bad news for Gore. Last Monday, the Redskins lost at home to the Tennessee Titans 27 to 21.


GREENFIELD: So take your pick. The academics all say Gore. The kids and the jocks say Bush. I wonder if that's a metaphor for this entire campaign. Think about this.

That's all for tonight. Tomorrow, my guests will include sportswriter and commentator Mike Lupica. I'm Jeff Greenfield in New York. CNN's countdown to election 2000 continues next with "LARRY KING LIVE."



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