November 28, 2017

1970. Celebrities Enter the World of Politics

California's Bellwether Gubernatorial Race
Bob Hope, John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, Dean Martin, and Frank Sinatra in 1977
Bill Downs

ABC Washington

August 14, 1970

As far as we can find out, young Abe Lincoln was one of the first American politicians to wisecrack his way into Congress, later using his humor as a shield against the agonies of the Civil War. But what Lincoln proved in Illinois when he was just getting started was that votes can be wooed by entertainment as well as oratory.

The old-time traveling medicine men used the same techniques to sell snake oil. "Pass the Biscuits" Pappy O'Daniel rode into the Texas statehouse back in the '30s behind a hillbilly band. And now it's almost standard procedure for candidates to warm up an audience with either some inspired Dixieland jazz or country hoedowns blasting off of a public address system.

It doesn't always work, though, as third party presidential candidate George Wallace can testify. And not even old-time cowboy movie star Tex Ritter, armed with his trusty guitar, could pick his way through the brambles of Tennessee politics.

However, showbiz is playing an increasingly important role in national elections, particularly since radio and TV. The election of George Murphy to the Senate and his friend and co-star Ronald Reagan to the California statehouse proves that. For better or worse, voters can project their favorite shadows from the screen and tube into the real world of politics.

Consequently, the Hollywood star as campaigner and fundraiser has become a political factor nationally, and in this off-year election, particularly in California, where the state's Mr. Democrat Jesse Unruh is challenging Republican Governor Reagan.

Here in Washington, both the GOP and Democratic national committees regard this contest for the Sacramento statehouse as the most crucial contest in the November voting. Although heavily Democratic, that party's leaders fear a Reagan victory might turn the state legislature Republican, a serious setback for the Democrats now planning for the 1972 presidential go-round.

So the entertainment industry's big names are being rolled out like artillery pieces. The Unruh Democrats boast such names as Gene Kelly, Dustin Hoffman, Diahann Carroll, Trini Lopez, Shirley MacLaine, Bill Cosby, and Robert Wise.

The Reagan Republicans boast of Chuck Connors, Walter Brennan, Dean Martin, Bob Cummings, and Buddy Ebsen—and one very important added backer, Frank Sinatra.

For Sinatra it's a party shift, for he has been a major Democratic fundraiser and in 1966 opposed Reagan. Now the millionaire crooner says he thinks Reagan is the best man for the job. It's a blow to Jesse Unruh's campaign. The California Republicans have all the political money they need; the state's Democrats are scratching for it. But comedian Pat Paulsen says he will replace Sinatra as the sex symbol of the Unruh political camp.

A pretty face, the inflated glamor of the screen, is not an automatic pass into political office, as Mrs. Charles Black—née Shirley Temple—found in her unsuccessful bid for Congress a few years ago. As a writer, some of my best friends are actors. But the best of them work so hard in their narrow, ego-stretching jobs that they have little time for anyone else. There are exceptions, of course. There always are.

This is Bill Downs in Washington.