Show biz and politics have always intersected. That is nothing new under the sun. Gloria Swanson had a barely hushed up affair with Joseph Kennedy and that was in 1927. The legends of Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra cavorting in Palm Springs, Las Vegas and elsewhere with the likes of Jack and Bobby Kennedy and their brother-in-law Peter Lawford came decades later. So it’s not the least bit unusual, in the age of the reality TV commander in chief, that Hollywood and Washington are more closely aligned than ever.
What makes today different though, is that some seamless connection now exists to where everything political is now tabloid fare and tabloid fare somehow has achieved political stature. That is the doing of Donald Trump. That is the metamorphosis we observed, starting in 2015, and now it’s baked into our culture. Politicians are now performers, government is theater of the absurd. And everybody is on the take financially. That’s the one constant.
With GOP endorsing insurrection and murder along w/fealty to Trump, Lincoln Project scamPAC grift exposed, and George & Kellyanne exploiting their kid on “American Idol” and playing us all for fools, we may all need to go off the grid for a while. We live in a sick country.
— Cheri Jacobus (@CheriJacobus) February 15, 2021
The issue with the Lincoln Project and John Weaver’s predatory nature is a sad one. Two thoughts come to mind: First, LP did some incredible videos and first class work. Whatever grifting, overreaching, etc. might have existed at the top of the corporate chain is one thing, and I’m not going to dissect that here. My hope is that the immensely talented people who put together all those great videos can still produce more good work.
Secondly, and this is where it gets sticky, peoples’ work and their personal lives and character are two different things. I can tell you from working in Hollywood back in the day that there were people whose public persona was one thing and whose actual behavior was something else altogether. Johnny Depp comes to mind. Rumors about him being unpleasant and overly aggressive were bouncing around the industry for many years before his domestic abuse became public. And I want to make it clear, I was off in the weeds in that business. I worked on some B-movies in the 80’s. I state this to let you know that I’m no kind of insider or expert, and that you didn’t have to be, to hear what the word was on the street. That’s the point.
Now getting to the Conway family, Claudia Conway made her debut on American Idol tonight. The TV appearance and her competition to make it in show business isn’t the issue. The issue is that the appearance was exploitative all around, with George Conway and a holographic version of his wife, Kellyanne — you gotta see it — being perfect parents and coaching their kid to achieve, months after all the scandals about abuse and threats of emancipation. And American Idol was exploiting political drama to make a buck. Variety:
The nineteenth season of the reality stalwart, which debuted Feb. 14, promotes Claudia’s appearance from its first ad break; that teaser features judge Katy Perry asking the youth, with some deliberateness, “Are you OK?” “No!,” Claudia replies, with the amusement at her own misery that will be familiar to anyone who was once a teen. Perhaps that’s all it is; perhaps Claudia is just suffering under parental authority in all the familiar ways. But there’s something eerier at work here, including Conway’s practiced defense of herself to the judging panel: “I only want to spread love, and I love a compromise. And I do agree to disagree with my mom and my dad.”
Granted, this was all taped last fall, before the most seismic family blowups hit the internet early this year. But the first thing that feels jarringly wrong about this is the degree to which a child at the center of a dispute that has bled into public view is being asked to launder the reputations of two adults who should know better. Kellyanne appears here briefly, first shown in archival footage embracing Donald Trump and then via video link, lecturing her daughter: “You should be nervous, honey, it’s a very humbling experience,” she begins, before declaring that “winners are people who are willing to lose.” (One wishes she’d passed that advice on to those in her professional orbit.) […]
Treating the pursuit of fame as the cure for infamy is hardly new. In the unscripted-TV universe, it’s been a generous wellspring for the casting department of “Dancing with the Stars,” among other shows. In 2019, Trump’s White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer attempted to obliterate the shadows in his persona with the glow of the mirrorball; previously, another daughter of politics, Bristol Palin, rode her Vice-Presidential nominee mom Sarah’s fame to the finals in 2010. That latter casting is likely more relevant here, in the similarities between Bristol Palin’s and Claudia Conway’s cases. Putting one on television felt annoying but conscionable, and putting the other on “American Idol” looks like malpractice. Bristol was, for all that her family’s story had made for tabloid fodder, tasked with working out nothing more complicated than her love for dance in almost aggressively sunny segments. She had also signed onto the show as a legal adult.
Contrast this with Claudia, whom judge Perry could credibly ask if her mother still hugs her. It fits both because of the public acrimony and because of Claudia’s age and vibrating waves of unhappiness. Claudia’s reply is as follows: “I mean, yeah, she loves me, I love her. It’s just, I feel like our relationship’s a little… it’s a little iffy.” The conversation between the judges and the judged is intercut with taped bits, including Claudia directly telling the camera, “Now I want to get out of the controversy, get out of the drama, get out of the political whatever, and let people know that I am a singer and this is what I want to do!” There’s a special sort of cruelty, or carelessness, to the introduction of a shot of Claudia fist-bumping her father just as she says she wants to “get out of the political whatever.” Try though she might, Claudia cannot escape the gravitational pull of her family story.
The one theme that resonates through all of this, is that learning how to control television is the ticket to great things. Again, that’s the legacy of Donald Trump. Television was the only thing he was ever any good at, form only, never substance. And if you can go on national TV and look Ward and June Cleaver, then that takes the sting out of rumors or actual facts of less savory moments.
Let me make it clear: I don’t care about the Conways’ family life at all. My point is that this latest episode in the Conway saga is part of a strange bastardization of celebrity and politics and public relations — and of course, money — which I believe does a disservice to this country. What made television an incredible invention was the fact that it was able to transmit pictures of reality as it was taking place. “And you are there,” intoned the announcer of yore. Now television has become the reality and the truth is lost. This is what I find ominous. What is real and what is play acting anymore? Who knows? More importantly, does anybody care?
So called politicians like Madison Cawthorn have made no bones about the fact that their main investment is in communications and public relations — not in learning how to do the job of being a member of the House of Representatives. Then you’ve got Lara Trump, whose only accomplishment in life is keeping Eric from eating the kids’ crayons — yet she’s hoping to ride a certain image and line of bull into a Senate seat. And you’ve got the rest, Kelly Loeffler, Marjorie Taylor Green, Lauren Boebert, we can go on and on.
We’re in a tremendous cultural nosedive in this country, having failed to take politics seriously and having turned it into a carnival act, bread and circus in lieu of accountability and progress. Politics is being spun as entertainment and entertainment is being cast as having political significance. We are on some shaky ground here, to say the least.
Here’s the American Idol clip. It’s just one more PR image in the Washington tabloid bubble. For that reason I hesitate to put it here, but on the other hand, if we don’t know what we’re dealing with, how can we decide what to do about it? And that’s the Faustian bargain, isn’t it? We can’t discuss what is harmful to us, unless we look at it, and in so doing, we amplify its reach. Of course the alternative is to ignore what is happening, and that’s not such a great idea either.
What’s next, Barron with a flaming swords act? Or, maybe he’ll save that for Dancing With The Stars.
America’s public discourse is too much of a freak show since Trump came on the scene. And now, we don’t seem to know how to pull the plug and go back to any semblance of normalcy. That’s the problem.