The Demand-Side Management Version of a Rock Star

Obama is one, of course. So is Clinton -- actually, both Bill and Hillary are. Even Junichiro Koizumi is one. I refer, of course, to ...
by | March 13, 2007 AT 3:00 AM

Rockstar Obama is one, of course. So is Clinton -- actually, both Bill and Hillary are. Even Junichiro Koizumi is one.

I refer, of course, to politicians who have been described by news outlets as "rock stars." This means that they possess the bright sheen of celebrity, can draw and easily excite crowds and sometimes are guilty of trashing hotel rooms without remembering to tip the maid.

This also means that political reporters feel free to refer to their star quality as a way of distinguishing political royalty from the rest of the pack. So free that the political rock star has become the reverse of an endangered species, a phenomenon that can be cited with persistent and annoying frequency.

There are probably more political rock stars these days, in fact, than actual rock stars. Seriously -- isn't is all hip-hop or Mariah Carey-style "American Idol" vocalizing?

But political rock stars (or the more cautious, and rare, subgenus, "the political equivalent of a rock star") include all the major presidential candidates -- McCain, certainly; Guiliani, obviously; Bill Richardson, why not?

Sadly, no one said that Tom Vilsack was a rock star, rather that he was outshone by those who were. Both the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post declared that Vilsack was "not a rock star." So much for objective journalism.

Vilsack rather humbly took to describing himself, to those who would listen, as "rock solid," rather than a rock star.

But there have been thousands more stars named in the political galaxy over just the past couple of years, as a quick foray into Nexis shows.

Sometimes even those clearly falling from the limelight are described this way. When Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stepped down last year, dozens of papers still granted him rock-star status, if only in the past tense or in phrases such as "erstwhile rock star." (That was the LA Times -- trips off the tongue, don't it?)

Being a political rock star is something that has even taken on semi-official status, according to the Washington Post. Writing up one of Gerald Ford's funerals earlier this year, one of the paper's White House reporters noted that "As Aaron Copland's 'Fanfare for the Common Man' was played, Boy Scouts stood at strategic points holding up signs reading 'SS' and 'Green' to indicate sections where guests were supposed to sit, according to a peculiar Washington hierarchy that distinguishes between political rock stars and the merely powerful."

Distinguishing between political rock stars and the merely powerful is probably easier to do than figuring out who's "SS" and who's "Green."

But even in Washington, it can be hard to know just who qualifies as a rock star. Earlier this year, the usually sensible Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in The New Yorker about an environmentalist, "testifying on Capitol Hill, Lovins emerged as the demand-side management version of a rock star."

Outside of Washington, where the term has apparently been institutionalized even as it's being cheapened, judging just who is a rock star becomes trickier and, perhaps, even more meaningless. Chris Dodd, no one's idea of a rock star in the context of his presidential campaign, was called a rock star while running for reelection to the Senate by the Hartford Courant.

Actually, the paper called him "the political equivalent of a rock star aging gracefully," which is slightly more believable -- putting aside the fact that rock stars don't age gracefully.

Perhaps my favorite is Dodd's Senate colleague John Thune, who is popular back in South Dakota but who, despite his great height, could pass unnoticed anywhere outside of that state and this city. He is the type of politician that the home-state media feels obligated to speak of as a potential national candidate, despite an overwhelming lack of evidence.

Just today, the Argus Leader ran a story speculating about the possibilities Thune could end up as McCain's running mate, despite A) McCain's not being any near the GOP nomination and B) a very explicit denial of any such scenario from Thune's own spokesman.

The story also puts Tom Daschle on Obama's short list because, you know, he couldn't even carry South Dakota. Since Thune beat Daschle when he was leader of the Senate Democrats, he naturally has flirted with rock-star status even in the national media.

Here's a transcript of an interview Thune did with CNN a while back:

HENRY: Very quickly, before the process, Republicans were saying you're a rock star. During the process, they said your credibility was shot. Now that you've won, where do you stand? Are you a rock star again?

THUNE: Well, I don't think I ever was. But the point in all of this is, what I'm here to do is represent the people of South Dakota.

Thune doesn't think he ever was? Were the drugs that good on his campaign/arena rock tour?

In fairness, I should note that Governing itself has succumbed on two occasions to describing politicians as rock stars. Last year, Josh Goodman wrote that Martin O'Malley, who went on to become Maryland's governor, "quite literally brings rock star qualities to the race--he is the former frontman of an Irish-style rock band."

That's fair, isn't it -- twisting the cliche around when the guy actually plays music?

The more egregious case was presented by yours truly. In 2002, I wrote that  Mayor Jerry "Abramson is the closest thing Louisville has to a resident rock star."

That's pretty embarrassing at this point. I'll have to live with it. But at least it was five years, and 10,000 political rock stars, ago.