What's Wrong with Celebrity?

The term is being used as an insult. But there are worse things for a leader to be

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Callie Shell for TIME

"He's the biggest celebrity in the world." As a political insult, it would seem to be on the order of charging, "Damn, my opponent is good-looking!" Yet since John McCain's infamous Barack Obama/Paris Hilton/Britney Spears ad, his campaign has hammered on the celebrity tag, to the chagrin of Democrats and editorialists who have condemned it for taking the low road.

Except: "He's the biggest celebrity in the world" is more or less the message of the Obama campaign too. Obama, after all, is the one giving his convention speech in Denver on Aug. 28 in a 76,000-seat stadium, a venue that practically begs fans to wave cigarette lighters and request Free Bird. The semiotics of an arena speech communicate a lot of things--a big tent, vitality and excitement--but say one thing loud and clear: Something big is going on here. Don't you want to know more?

In other words, it says Obama is the watercooler topic of 2008--the Survivor, the Titanic--and that's one thing the campaigns seem to agree on. What they're fighting over is not just two definitions of Barack Obama (neophyte vs. change agent) but two definitions of celebrity itself. One question at the core of this election is whether America loves stars more than it loves to hate them.

Why, after all, is celebrity an insult? Personal magnetism, the ability to galvanize attention and rally masses: this is a bad quality in a Chief Executive? J.F.K. and Ronald Reagan managed to soldier on with this handicap. Besides, celebrity is America's chief international export. There's something almost unpatriotic about denigrating it; it's like insulting Obama by comparing him to a gmc truck. (You know who complains about American celebrity culture? Al-Qaeda and the French, that's who!)

The irony is that by the politician-as-celeb standard set by Bill Clinton when he blew sax on Arsenio, McCain should be the better pop-culture candidate. He, not Obama, was in Wedding Crashers and on 24; he's gabbed and joked on countless late-night shows. If he were running against Chris Dodd, McCain would be the celeb hands down. Sure enough, Obama answered with an ad calling McCain a "Washington celebrity," showing clips of him on Leno and SNL.

The McCain of 2008, however, is a recovering celebrity, and he has discovered that fame is a terrible thing. His ad implies that Obama is an empty suit, a D lister. McCain is trying to frame his opponent the way gossip websites like tmz, Dlisted and PerezHilton.com frame celebrities like Spears: by appealing to a mix of fascination and resentment. Old-fashioned celebrity outlets, like Entertainment Tonight and (TIME sibling) PEOPLE magazine, look up to celebrities--putting them on "most sexy" lists and paying top dollar for their baby pictures. The new-style celebrity outlets prefer to publish dui write-ups and nipple slips--and they're thriving.

So McCain is running a tmz campaign. "Life in the spotlight must be grand," one McCain ad hisses, oozing contempt, as flashbulbs pop and pictures of Obama on magazine covers flip past. Like a snarky blog, the McCain campaign argues that Mr. Thinks He's All That is overexposed--in part by doing as much as it can to overexpose him.

If it worked, it would be a powerful strategy, turning one of Obama's biggest assets into a weakness. But it would be fruitless for Obama to try to run away from his celebrity, even if he wanted to. Whereas Clinton literally blew his own horn, Obama's iconography is largely an outside job: people make videos and posters of him, write rap songs about him, dedicate fashion lines to him, even peddle bootleg T shirts at his events. Like an illegal dvd of The Dark Knight, he has been pirated.

Besides, someone is buying all those magazines in the McCain ad. Snark aside, Americans still like celebrities. The trick for Obama is to be the right kind: less Britney, more Bono or Brangelina. Part of that is what former Us editor Bonnie Fuller calls his "Stars are just like us" strategy--appearing with his family in Us and PEOPLE and on Access Hollywood.

But his big test is that speech in Denver, which McCain will cast as rock-star vanity. A stadium's size is its message: it is the (literal) arena in which the audience connects individually to the man onstage and communally with the rest of the crowd. Like an arena rocker, Obama must make all listeners think he is speaking to each of them personally. And he has to reach a broad crowd, from the hipsters who think his early stuff was better to the mainstreamers just discovering him.

That's the stuff of real celebrity, and it's nothing to be ashamed of: it's the music that strong leaders use to deliver their lyrics. But this melody will have to compete with the drums of resentment, as each candidate cranks it up to 11.