Wilt Chamberlain was a Nixon Man: A Brief History of Celebrity Political Endorsements

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Not only does Barack Obama have the Horatio Alger success story, the youthful support base, and the catchy (so, so catchy) theme song "“ he's got something else none of the other 18 million candidates vying for the presidential seat in 2008 have.

He's got Oprah.

But she's not the only celebrity to involve herself in the political process. Wrestler Ric Flair and all-around badass Chuck Norris (under whose beard lies not a chin but another fist) have both endorsed rising Republican candidate Mike Huckabee. Elsewhere in the G.O.P., Adam Sandler, Robert Duvall and Ron Silver "“ whose previous political experience includes playing President Bartlet's campaign advisor Bruno Gianelli on The West Wing "“ are endorsing Rudy Giuliani. Conservative Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling is using his schilling.jpgconsiderable New England legend status to earn John McCain some points in New Hampshire. And in a video all over YouTube, singer-guitarist John Mayer professed his drunken love for Ron Paul (he "knows the Constitution!")

Among the Dems, Barbara Streisand has put herself strongly in Hillary Clinton's camp, while actor Sean Penn, porn-king Larry Flynt and country-singer Willie Nelson are backing Dennis Kucinich. Kevin Bacon (insert six degrees joke here) and Tim Robbins have both committed to campaigning for John Edwards, and Paul Simon is behind Chris Dodd. Incidentally, Obama's coterie of celebrity endorsers doesn't end with Oprah: Zach Braff, George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, Will Smith, Halle Barry and Jessica Biel are all on Barack's bandwagon.

Keep reading to find out which celebrity called FDR "Gumlegs," who Lee Majors, Wayne Newton and Dionne Warwick backed in 1980, and all the big names behind the Harding campaign.

The jury is still out on how this flurry of celebrity endorsements will actually affect American voters, and it will remain out until the Democratic primaries in early January. That's certainly not stopping the political pundits, news outlets and bloggers from gnawing the story to a bloody stump and heralding Oprah's endorsement of Obama as some sort of litmus test of the importance of celebrity in a political contest.

But although there are certainly more of them each campaign season, celebrity endorsements are nothing new. So, for your consideration and reading pleasure, we've dug up a few of the more notable examples from past elections.

The beginning of celebrity endorsement "normalcy"

Some historians credit Republican President Warren G. Harding with running the first campaign that made liberal use of celebrity endorsement. When Harding ran in 1920, film was still just a fledgling industry. Harding, who invented the word "normalcy," was backed by conservative silent film stars like Lillian Russell, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Al Jolson, evidently as part of a well-orchestrated campaign by ad agency Lord & Thomas. Other stunts planned by Albert Lasker, president of the agency, included having the aforementioned celebrities "“ as well as around 60 of their celebrity friends "“ sing "Harding, You're the Man for Us" at an event hosted by the president-to-be, and bringing the Chicago Cubs down to Harding's home town in Ohio for an exhibition game. It worked. Harding was elected, although it soon became evident that he couldn't sustain that initial popularity: He's actually been called the worst president in history.

Old Gumlegs

Evidently, W.C. Fields, curmudgeonly comedian on the early 20th century, wasn't a big fan of Franklin D. Roosevelt "“ so much so that he allegedly called the polio-victim "Gumlegs," in addition to supporting Roosevelt's challenger, Wendell Wilkie. Of course, Fields's lampooning of politics (and pretty much everything else) is part of his legend "“ in 1940, the same year of the Roosevelt-Wilkie election, he became an "also ran," publishing Fields for President, a collection of humorous essays made out like campaign speeches.

Kennedy and the Rat Pack

Back in the day, John F. Kennedy was practically a card-carrying member of Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack and some political types believe his relationship with the coolest people in the world at the time aided in his defeat of Vice President Richard Nixon in the 1960 election. Kennedy's good looks and seemingly glamorous lifestyle identified him with the Hollywood elite that had adopted him, rendering him incredibly popular with the people. During the Democratic convention that election year, Hollywood's support of Kennedy was on brilliant display: Kennedy shared the stage with stars like Marilyn Monroe and Marlene Dietrich and some political pundits reportedly joked that if elected, he would appoint Sinatra as Secretary of State.

Wilt and Tricky Dick

Remember back in the day when basketball great Wilt Chamberlain was bedding all those ladies? Well, it's possible that the lanky Lothario took a brief break from all that sexin' in 1968 "“ to stump for Richard Nixon. We guess it worked, because who wouldn't want to vote like a man who claims to have slept with more than 20,000 women?

The star wars of 1980

The 1980 presidential election was so chock full of stars, it threatened to overshadow the actual politics involved. In incumbent Jimmy Carter's corner was a greatest hits album of country and western stars: Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, Charlie Daniels and Johnny Cash all put on concerts and supported the southern Democrat. Carter also had the star power of Mary Tyler Moore, Muhammad Ali, Roberta Flack, Dionne Warwick, Neil Simon, Lee Majors, and Elizabeth "Bewitched" Montgomery on his side. But it evidently wasn't enough. Former actor Ronald Reagan won, with a celebrity line-up that read like a Christmas special in Vegas: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Pat Boone, Wayne Newton, and Zsa Zsa Gabor, as well as James Cagney and Robert Stack (Unsolved Mysteries!)

Before Carter took the Democratic nomination, Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy (he of the Chappaquiddick scandal) was also in the running. And he too had no dearth of Hollywood friends, including Warren Beatty, Angie Dickinson, Goldie Hawn, Martin Sheen, Bette Davis, Jack Lemmon and Shelly Winters. Other candidates who time has forgotten also boasted all-star lists of endorsements: Paul Newman, Norman Lear, Jason Robards, Ed Asner, Margot Kidder and James Taylor supported John Anderson, while Helen "I Am Woman" Reddy and Linda Rondstadt both lifted their voices to support Jerry Brown.

The Boss and the 2004 election

springsteen-kerry2.jpgIn our most recent presidential election, the celebrities were also out in force. Before that terrifying rebel yell that may have cost him the primary, Howard Dean was endorsed by director and erstwhile actor Rob Reiner (When Harry Met Sally, All in the Family's "Meathead"). Governor and Terminator Arnold Schwarzenegger backed President George W. Bush, as did evangelist Jerry Falwell and Curt Schilling. And the Boss himself, Bruce Springsteen, backed Massachusetts Senator John Kerry both in words and song, playing a fundraising concert for Kerry in the last days leading up to the election.

Linda Rodriguez is an occasional contributor to mental_floss.

December 12, 2007 - 8:14am
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