In the spring of 1969, newlyweds John Lennon and Yoko Ono decided to turn the nonstop coverage of their unavoidable celebrity into something worthwhile. They invited the press to join them in Amsterdam for their honeymoon, where they sat in bed for a week and talked about peace. “Yoko and I decided that we knew whatever we did would be in the papers,” Lennon would later explain, so they determined that if they were going to be in front of reporters, they might as well talk about something important. This general perspective has led countless subsequent celebrities to use their fame as currency to speak out on issues they care about — which is, in many ways, admirable. But they’re often blissfully unaware of the full context for Lennon’s influential use of his celebrity.
“We decided to use the space we would occupy anyway with a commercial for peace,” he explained. So Lennon and Ono often placed their campaigns within that rather cynical yet honest framework — that he, and his ideas, were a commodity (“We’re trying to sell peace, like a product, you know, and sell it like people sell soap or soft drinks”). And even more importantly, Lennon knew he only had so much credibility. “It’s part of our policy not to be taken seriously,” he said. “Our opposition, whoever they may be, in all their manifest forms, don’t know how to handle humor. And we are humorous. We’re Laurel and Hardy. And we stand a better chance under that guise.” This is a lesson that many of today’s politically conscious celebrities would do well to learn.
The latest celebrity pundit to wade in over his head is John Cusack, who gave a much-shared interview to The Daily Beast to promote his new film Love & Mercy . We’re not talking about that interview because of his movie, of course, but because of his thoughts on public policy and foreign affairs. Interviewer Marlow Stern asks Cusack about Vince Vaughn’s recent, ill-informed comments on guns in schools, and Cusack responds — after sending a shout-out to a site called “HeyJackass.com” — rather sensibly. “That’s not the kind of debate where you want to do a tit-for-tat with what two celebrities think about it,” he says, “and in order to talk about it you have to do it in an in-depth way — you need to follow the money and see what the politics are.”
Fine point! And then, with an utter lack of self-awareness, Cusack proceeds to explain that in foreign policy matters, President Obama is “as bad or worse than Bush.” Okey-dokey! “Obama has certainly extended and hardened the cement on a lot of Bush’s post-9/11 Terror Inc. policies,” the Con Air star explains, “so he’s very similar to Bush in every way that way.”
First of all, go ahead diagram that sentence, I dare you. (“In every way that way”?) Second, the idea that Obama “hasn’t started as many wars” kinda renders the entire premise moot, no? Third, “I don’t even think Dick Cheney or Richard Nixon would say the president has the right to unilaterally decide whom he can kill around the world” is probably a good point! But fourth, I’m not the guy to publicly debate the finer points of foreign policy, because I’m a pop culture writer, and nobody cares what I think anyway.
Which brings us to the fifth, final, and most salient point: Nobody cares what these guys think either. Oh sure, we’ll print it, and read it, and chatter about it, and laugh about it — but when was the last time anyone was mulling over the epidemic of school shootings and mused, “Well, sure, but what does Fred Claus think about it?” Has anyone ever contemplated the policymaking of post-9/11 America and thought, “I really need to know where Lloyd Dobler sits on this issue before I can organize my thoughts?”
Hey, look, I get it — when people are putting microphones in front of you all day, it’s easy to become convinced that you’re smarter and more enlightened than you actually are. (Ever read any of Cusack’s tweets? Good heavens.) But more often than not, celebs just end up sounding stupid — hey there, Craig T. Nelson — and actors who are politically outspoken, on both sides of the political equation, rarely accomplish much more than potentially alienating half of their audience. It took me years longer than it should have to appreciate the work of John Wayne, because I read his noxious comments on the Vietnam War (and its protestors) before I saw, say, The Searchers. That was my loss, and I’m glad I got over the prejudice. I’d imagine plenty of people on the other end of the political spectrum might feel the same way about, say, Jane Fonda’s work — and as a result, they’re missing great movies like Klute and The China Syndrome. Maybe they resent George Clooney for being some kind of limousine liberal, and have skipped Gravity or The Descendants, which is unfortunate. And if Vince Vaughn ever makes a good movie again, or turns out to be great on True Detective, some may have difficulty digging into his work when they find out he’s become BFFs (and business partners) with Glenn Beck.
So here’s a nutty idea: if you’re an actor promoting a movie, talk about the movie. Or about the movie business. Or about acting. Or about yourself. In other words, stick with the stuff you’re actually an expert on — because an actor talking about politics is too often, if I may quote one of my favorite Vince Vaughn movies, “about as useful as a poopy-flavored lollipop.”