In Iowa on Jan. 3, the battle of the celebrities, Barbra vs. Oprah, will decide the future of civilization -- or, at the very least, help determine who might win the Democratic presidential nomination.
The ignorant sneer at the Iowa caucuses, since they involve only a handful of the citizens in a state that has fewer than three million residents and is known to foreigners mainly as the place that isn't Idaho. But political soothsayers agree that Iowa counts. In presidential politics, Iowa is destiny. A good showing at the start of the electoral cycle creates momentum -- "the big Mo," as George H.W. Bush once called it. Over the years, Iowa has breathed fresh energy into several limping candidacies, including George McGovern's, Jimmy Carter's and John Kerry's.
"Celebrity," said John Updike, "is a mask that eats into the face. As soon as one is aware of being 'somebody,' to be watched and listened to with extra interest, input ceases, and the performer goes blind and deaf."
Updike makes celebrity sound horrible, but much of the world craves it, until they get it -- and then, with mixed emotions, they cling to it. A great comedian, Fred Allen, once remarked that "A celebrity is a person who works hard all his life to become well known, then wears dark glasses to avoid being recognized."
But these individuals, while self-maimed by the lust for money and fame, are the mythic rulers of the Earth. They own everyone's imagination. They can sell anything from perfume to T-shirts. Their status is special and they know it. They expect special treatment.
Last summer, journalists who wished to interview Angelina Jolie in connection with her performance in A Mighty Heart as the widow of Daniel Pearl, the murdered Wall Street Journal reporter, were asked to sign a contract promising that "The interview will not be used in a manner that is disparaging, demeaning or derogatory to Ms. Jolie."
Celebrities, through their press agents, now routinely demand the right to determine which journalists will interview them and which photographs will be printed on magazine covers. A generation ago show-business stars worked hard to get publicity. Now, with the proliferation of celebrity magazines and talk shows, the stars set the rules -- and most magazines go along. Oprah Winfrey, of course, is too big to bother with such nonsense. Since 2000, she has edited, or caused to be edited, her own magazine, with her own picture on the cover, chosen by her.
In this amazingly interminable presidential campaign, which will be remembered in political legend like the Long Parliament (1640-1660) in British history, the implacable judges who populate the Sunday morning talk shows have handed down their stern judgement: Senator Hillary Clinton absolutely must win in Iowa. Nothing less than first place will do. A victory for Senator Barack Obama could put Clinton on the treadmill to oblivion.
With so much at stake, her people can't take chances. So (according to credible sources) they recently polled Iowa Democrats on a crucial subject: Would Barbra Streisand help them or hurt them if she toured Iowa at Clinton's side? Apparently there are Iowans who still answer the phone, despite months of pestering from political pollsters. As it turned out, they claim to be more pro-Streisand than not.
And Streisand, for her part, was standing ready. Months ago she hedged her bets by dividing her political donations among Clinton, Obama and Senator John Edwards, but recently she settled on Clinton. So she's now joined the campaign, to work alongside the 220 people on Clinton's paid Iowa staff.
The Clintonians must have been relieved to learn that Streisand was acceptable. They knew they were heading into a celebrity campaign.
Not only has Obama challenged Clinton's feminist credentials by putting forth his own feminist attitudes, he's had Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, describe him as someone "who honours the feminine values of caring for all" -- as opposed, presumably, to the male values of caring for nobody.
But Clinton's handlers especially needed someone truly famous to match the woman who is now Obama's most famous campaigner -- Winfrey, recently described by The New York Times as the "cultural arbiter for millions of women" and by Steffen Schmidt, an Iowa State University political scientist, as "the Mother Teresa of entertainers." The queen of daytime chatter, Winfrey has become a figure of enormous power as well as an item on any list of American billionaires. Her influence on book publishing is altogether unprecedented. This is the woman who put Anna Karenina on the best-seller list by telling her viewers they had to read it.
If she can bring even a fraction of that influence to politics, she'll provide fresh proof that this is the great era of the celebrity. Winfrey is a celebrity in the pure sense. When Daniel Boorstin wrote in 1961 that "The celebrity is a person who is known for his well-known-ness," he had no idea how much he was saying about the future of mass culture.
Today we live in a Boorstin world. Millions of us know the names of badly behaved young women without having even the slightest idea what they do when they are working, if anything. We know about them because they are known. Winfrey, though well-behaved, falls into roughly that category -- a celebrity whose fame constantly replenishes itself, making her more famous.
Streisand is a professional whose accomplishments we can easily name: singer, actor, movie director. Winfrey, while she's obviously a first-class businesswoman and occasionally an actor, is in essence a TV talker who can encourage others to talk on TV, sometimes holding their hands at emotional moments. After 30 years she's become well-known, probably better known than Streisand. In this contest, she also has age on her side-- she's 53, Streisand 65. Those 12 years should work nicely with Obama's claim to be a new voice, ready to replace the old ways of Washington represented by Clinton.
I'd like to see Streisand and Winfrey debate. It couldn't be nearly as boring as the talkathons so far, and might be a lot more amusing. Besides, this could be the year when it becomes fashionable to identify with the celebrity rather than the candidate. On Friday, Gerard Baker's column in The Times of London carried the headline, "Vote Winfrey, not Streisand."