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Politics as another rung on celebrity ladder

One job comes with a billion-dollar budget crisis and a state legislature as tractable as a herd of cats. The other involves muttering catchphrases into a camera. Then there's lunch, and they hand you a check.

Six days after Arnold Schwarzenegger entered the race for governor of California, energizing headline writers across America and transforming a political situation which had been merely chaotic into a maelstrom of biblical scale, inquiring minds want to know: Why?

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Why give up a life of ease? Why trade a routine in which the workday use of swimming pools is acceptable for one that may possibly involve a discussion about infrastructure appropriations reform?

Here's a thought: Maybe Arnold wants to move up the celebrity ladder, as did Ronald Reagan and Jesse Ventura and Sonny Bono before him.

They may want people to see them as substantive. Perhaps they are after a kind of fame more lasting than that of a box-office draw.

"Last year's action movie hero can be forgotten, but once you're a governor, you're always a governor," says Bluford Adams, a University of Iowa English professor and author of "E Pluribus Barnum: The Great Showman and the Making of US Popular Culture".

The intersection of show business, celebrity, and electoral politics has long been a busy one in the US. In today's J.Lo-encrusted world, it is hard to remember that politicians were the nation's first aristocracy of celebrity. In an age when "mass media" meant "Poor Richard's Almanac," the nation's leaders were the only people known to large numbers of Americans. Through the 19th century, political rallies and marches and clubs were primary forms of entertainment.

Talkies, the penny press, and radio changed all that. To the average American, Herbert Hoover was not as intrinsically interesting as, say, Myrna Loy.

But even in its early days, the new class of entertainment personalities included celebrities interested in politics. P.T. Barnum himself served as a Connecticut state legislator. The 1930s movie star George Murphy was elected to the Senate from California in 1964, two years before Ronald Reagan won the state's governorship.

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Mr. Reagan, of course, represents the pinnacle of actor-turned-politician achievement. (Some thought him more of a politico even in his acting days. His first wife, Jane Wyman, divorced him in part because she was bored by what she thought was his constant nattering about public policy.)

But a number of other entertainers have served in prominent political posts. Sonny Bono was mayor of Palm Springs, Calif., and a member of Congress from 1995 until 1998. Ben Jones, who played Cooter on "The Dukes of Hazzard," served as a congressman from Georgia during the late 1980s and early '90s. Fred Grandy from "The Love Boat" was a representative from Iowa during the same period.

On one level, it's not surprising that entertainers want to tread the policy-wonk stage. The professions of actor and politician are not unalike.

"With both politics and Hollywood, you need an ability to communicate with large groups of people, to navigate the treacherous waters of power, and an ability to perform," says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.

In Washington some have gone so far as to describe politics as show business for ugly people. (This ignores, however, the competitive aspect of elections. Perhaps politics is really basketball for people who are puffy and short).

It's also easy to denigrate elected celebrities as empty heads, but really, compared with what? Whatever one thinks of Reagan, the voters loved him. Bono was an effective mayor, and far from the worst member of Congress during his time in Washington. Jesse Ventura ... well, his poll numbers in Minnesota may be flatter than a body-slammed wrestler, but at least he got a cable talk-show gig out of it.

Some celebrities-turned-politicians clearly had political ideas of their own. Some, such as Bono, were brought to politics by involvement in local issues. Some may well have opted to try and capitalize on the free coverage a campaign can generate to try and revive dormant careers.

The California race is a case study for the latter point. Not that we'll name names, but just look at the prospective ballot. Sections of it read like a "Where are they now?" feature from the back of "TV Guide."

But another factor may now be at work: the sheer proliferation of celebrityhood. With cable channels sprouting like bindweed in August, and reality shows making stars of people who have no discernible talent other than their ability to smile on cue, many people are outlasting their Andy Warholesque 15 minutes of fame.

"It's a huge expansion of the middle class of fame," says Mr. Thompson. "The more it expands, the more desirable and rarer the upper level becomes."

Thus Mr. Schwarzenegger, already Hollywood aristocracy, could enter a true pantheon if elected governor of California.

Vin Diesel, after all, may be nothing but the answer to a trivia question in a decade. ("Which action star with a brief career had a name that sounded like a chain of oil repair shops?") But Reagan will be on dinner placemats for decades.