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From the screen to the political stage

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SHE starred on Broadway and in the opera. She was described as one of the most beautiful women in the country, and she married a famous actor. She came out to Hollywood and starred in the adventure picture "She."

History, though, remembers Helen Gahagan Douglas for something else entirely.

She blazed the trail down that curious and starlit road leading from celebrity to politics.

Back in 1944, it was a novelty to see a movie star on the stump. Douglas ran for Congress as a New Deal Democrat and was elected in a district that covered much of Los Angeles. After three terms, she tried to step up to the Senate and collided head-on with the ambitions of Richard Nixon. The red-baiting, name-calling race has gone down in the record books for two memorable phrases: Douglas called her opponent "Tricky Dick." He branded her as "pink right down to her underwear."

More lasting than this single colorful campaign, though, was the precedent.

Douglas begot song-and-dance Sen. George Murphy, who begot B-movie actor Ronald Reagan, who begot Arnold Schwarzenegger — with Clint Eastwood, Sonny Bono and Shirley Temple Black along the way.

California politics had an appetite for stars, and stars found the stagecraft of politics familiar territory.

Fueled by a national infatuation with celebrity, the trend spread elsewhere: Actors, astronauts and athletes sought office, and often won.

It didn't seem to matter whether a candidate had a ho-hum or a distinguished career in entertainment. Bill Bradley was a bigger name as an NBA player than Fred Grandy was as a "Love Boat" actor, but both were elected to serve. Mercury astronaut John Glenn combined celebrity and old-fashioned military service to represent Ohio in the Senate. Jesse Ventura, meanwhile, broke all the known rules to leap from the pro wrestler's ring to the Minnesota governorship. Incrementally, the boundary between entertainment and politics dissolved.

As much as anybody, a jowly Tennessee lawyer named Fred Thompson has come to symbolize the perfect bonding of politics and show business in a single, high-powered molecule.

A onetime congressional Watergate committee staff lawyer, he ended up playing himself in a movie about his investigation of a Tennessee parole scandal. That got him out of Washington and into film. In the 1990s, he starred in pictures such as "The Hunt for Red October" and "Die Hard 2," only to return to the Capitol in 1994 as a Republican senator, filling the seat previously held by Al Gore.

Thompson announced his retirement in 2002, but while still in office he joined the cast of "Law and Order." Now, out of office, he continues as an actor and also serves as a visiting national security fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington. This year, he crossed the last of the old-school boundaries, signing with ABC News Radio as a commentator.

In the age of Helen Gahagan Douglas, it was quite a distance from Hollywood to Washington. Now, celebrity and governance live under the same roof.


john.balzar@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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