Last Monday, golf great Tiger Woods dropped by the Oval Office while in town to promote June’s AT&T National. Tuesday brought the country singer Toby Keith. On Wednesday, while Barack Obama was in Iowa, R&B singer Usher swung by the premises to talk with administration staff about fighting malaria. Thursday was quieter – maybe just the lull before actor Forest Whitaker’s visit Friday.
The president, once derisively deemed “the biggest celebrity in the world,” is living up to the billing, with celebrities lining up to see him.
The bold-faced visitors who have marched through the gates of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. over Obama's first 100 days make for a striking contrast not only to his predecessor's White House – which was by no means A-lister friendly – but from that of Bill Clinton as well.
The celebrity-politician dynamic has changed since Bubba schmoozed – It's not just fun and games and snoozes in the Lincoln Bedroom anymore, says Brookings Institution Vice President Darrell West, author of the book “Celebrity Politics.”
“Celebrities used to be considered vacuous people who didn’t know anything,” says West. “And I think in response to that, the celebrities who are getting involved politically are actually boning up on the issues and developing expertise.”
West notes that “the celebrity engagement under Clinton centered on fundraising,” while “Obama seems more open to using celebrities for policy formulation and getting ideas.”
Ann Stock, who served as the White House social secretary for Clinton, concurs, saying that “a lot of celebrities actually now have issues they care about. Stock points to U2 singer and New York Times contributor Bono as the beau ideal.
She adds that the first six months of an administration are usually a time when people with the clout to make one attempt a pilgrimage to the White House.
“When you have a new administration,” says Stock, “everybody wants to see the president and first lady. People want to talk about their issues, they want to send in their letters…People renew their energy about what they care about. And I’m not talking just about celebrities, but real people too.”
And, she says, the 24-hour news cycle and the more detailed coverage of White House goings and comings on sites like POLITICO has added to the appeal of the White House as a destination, and to the impression that the floodgates of celebrity have been opened.
(A request to speak with the administration about its famous visitors went unreturned.)
The administration released photos of Obama’s Oval Office meeting with Woods. And the president made time in his schedule to speak with Whitaker - for what one aide called a “hot minute” – about malaria.
George Clooney’s credentials as a celebrity activist won him meetings with both Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. After discussing Darfur with both men, Clooney held a press conference where he announced he had received White House assurances that the issue “is high on their agenda.”
Clooney’s “Ocean’s Eleven” co-star, Brad Pitt, also stopped by the presidential complex in early March to talk about the recovery from Hurricane Katrina. The actor, whose “Make it Right” foundation builds sustainable housing for Hurricane Katrina victims, met with both the president and White House Climate Czar Carol Browner.
And at least one celebrity will be staying at the White House for more than an afternoon: Kal Penn, the “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle” star who campaigned for Obama last year, has joined the staff of the Office of Public Liaison.
Ted Johnson, managing editor of Variety, says he’s “actually a little surprised” that this administration has been so celeb accessible, considering how Obama and other Democrats have been slammed in the past for palling around with Hollywood types.
Johnson recalls the consternation that surrounded Obama’s appearance with Barbra Streisand at a fundraiser last September, while he was on the trail.
“I think it is probably more because there is not an election up in the year,” says Johnson.
“It’s almost as if [the White House] concluded Obama’s own celebrity will outshine any celebrities.”
Democratic Strategist Phil Singer concurs, saying that the president’s “popularity has made him a validator for celebrities and athletes seeking recognition,” as opposed to the other way around.
But former Bush communications strategist Mark McKinnon cautions that while Obama finds himself riding a wave right now, “the wave can crush you if you’re not careful. Remember, the time McCain really got some traction was when they accused Obama of caring more about celebrity than the country.”
That may be true in the future, and some observers suspect Obama may be less inviting of such guests later in his term. But West sees a shift in how this president regards America’s greatest social export.
“I think he understands that celebrities have gone mainstream,” says West. “They are no longer radioactive and there is no need to avoid them. America has become a celebrity culture.”