Actors And Politicians

There are striking similarities between successful actors and successful politicians. I’ve had the opportunity to observe both, and I know.

Take charisma, for example. Charisma is nothing more than a high level of energy. We all instinctively recognize that energy equals life, and so when we run into people who exude an above-average level of energy, we are attracted to them, sort of like moths to a flame. Both successful actors and successful politicians have an extraordinarily high level of human energy.

Except for mountain climbing, there is hardly a more grueling activity than a political campaign. What the candidates have the least of is time, and it is not unusual for candidates for high office to start early in the morning and finish late at night, making public appearances in a number of places often separated by many miles.

But it is not enough to show up. The candidate has to appear fresh, eager, jovial, glad to be wherever he or she is, both in the early morning and late at night. It really does take a special person to do this. Ordinary humans can be tired, grumpy and droopy, but not the candidate. He or she has to be the Energizer Bunny. Bill Clinton is famous for running his staff into the ground. I worked for a governor once who took 18-hour days like they were just a short shopping trip. This guy could get on an airplane, drop instantly into a deep sleep and wake up instantly alert and ready to go.

Another characteristic shared by actors and politicians is that both are energized by applause and performance. I’ve seen politicians who, when it comes time to make the speech or to plunge into the crowd, have an inner light that seems to flash on, and they genuinely enjoy the experience of interacting with people. The firm handshake and the big smile might to a cynic appear to be artificial, but most often they are quite genuine. Politicians love to be liked, and they respond to supporters the way actors respond to applause. Some literally come alive in front of a friendly audience.

A relatively new characteristic shared by politicians and actors is that they must be both visually attractive and photogenic. I can’t imagine an ugly person being elected in this age of television. Poor Abraham Lincoln could easily play the villain in a horror movie. If you observe his photograph closely, you see what appears to be a rather sinister face, with heavy eyebrows and deep lines. He was tall, with unusually long arms, a characteristic described as apelike by his political opponents. But he ran for office at a time when only a small percentage of the people ever saw a candidate. A number of our most famous presidents wouldn’t stand a chance in today’s visual world.

The camera is a strange beast. It sees without emotion, and some people we might think are attractive in person photograph in an unattractive way. The opposite is also true. Some people who look plain in person become almost different people in a photograph. It all has to do with bone structure, the planes of the face and how light plays on it. After seeing Richard Nixon on camera so often, I was shocked when I met him about what a warm and friendly personality he projected.

American politics and acting both have evolved. Gone are the stentorian voices that could reach a large crowd unamplified. As hard as it is to believe, it was once the custom for presidential candidates to remain at home, receiving delegations, while the party organization did the campaigning. Teddy Roosevelt, I believe, broke with that and established the new custom of the traveling candidate. Then came television and the debates. And now, Dr. Howard Dean has used the Internet in a way no other candidate has ever done so effectively. What’s next? We might one day see candidates traveling like rock stars and making speeches on big stages with fireworks and special effects.

At any rate, the tie between acting and politics will remain. And, oh, there is one more similarity: Sometimes the public persona and promised positions of a politician bear no more resemblance to the real person than the character played by an actor bears any resemblance to the actor. Both are good at faking it.

Charley Reese has been a journalist for 49 years, reporting on everything from sports to politics. From 1969—71, he worked as a campaign staffer for gubernatorial, senatorial and congressional races in several states. He was an editor, assistant to the publisher, and columnist for the Orlando Sentinel from 1971 to 2001. He now writes a syndicated column which is carried on Reese served two years active duty in the U.S. Army as a tank gunner.