The Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call recently reported that Pennsylvania's own Senator Shoe Polish, Rick Santorum, passed up a chance to have Paris Hilton work in his office for her Fox TV show, The Simple Life 2. That's too bad, really: Paris might have done something with Rick's hair, and if there's any place useless rich people belong, it's the U.S. Senate.
Santorum's staff told Roll Call that internships were only open to his Pennsylvania constituents, and the leggy hotel-chain heiress didn't qualify. But who is Santorum's constituency if not the idle rich? Thanks to Republican tax cuts, Ms. Hilton can count on inheriting millions more when her parents check out forever. Then she can use the money to buy even more adorable outfits for her dog, thereby creating jobs in the dog-couture industry. That's how trickle-down economics works: First pamper the puppies of the rich, and then the rest of us get tossed a bone. Every dog has its day. So why not celebrate Paris Hilton as a poster child for Republican policy?
Because, like Paris, Santorum knows the importance of projecting the right image.
For proof, consider Santorum's witless banter with another blow-dried TV blond: MSNBC political talk show host Chris Matthews. During this summer's Republican National Convention, Matthews recorded the following exchange about how Santorum thought Democrat John Kerry would do in Pennsylvania this November:
MATTHEWS: There's something about the culture of the Democratic ticket that isn't clicking in Pennsylvania....Bob Casey...the pro-life Democratic governor for two terms...once said to me that Pennsylvania is a John Wayne state, not a Jane Fonda state. Which of those two personalities most resembles John Kerry?
SANTORUM:...I think [Kerry's] anti-American sentiment, that kind of America can't do it, America isn't good enough anymore, and sort of being critical, as he has been of the president, not supporting our troops -- all that coming out in Pennsylvania is just not going to sell.
Hilton herself couldn't reach such depths of vapidity. When did criticizing a president become a criticism of the troops? When did saying "America can do better in Iraq" translate into "America isn't good enough"?
If Santorum's answers were cynical, they're nothing compared to the cynicism of Matthews' question. No wonder Paris thought being senator-for-a-day would be fun: If the political sentiments of 12 million Pennsylvanians can be reduced to a celebrity quiz -- John Wayne vs. Jane Fonda -- why shouldn't a celebrity think she can play at being a politician?
This year's election rhetoric hasn't just reduced the contest to a race between movie stars; it's also reduced voters into mere moviegoers. With so much at stake, this race is playing out as a popularity contest, a matter of evaluating "character." Did George Bush squeak out of his Guard service 30 years ago? Did John Kerry deserve three Purple Hearts, or just two? Who will offer a better performance starring in a leading role?
Personality must trump policy for Republicans to win this November. A recent New York Times poll suggests that while Kerry leads with voters who choose a candidate based on the issues, Bush leads two-to-one with voters who choose their president based on his character. The Republican strategy is simple: Keep the public focused on personal morality and character, not issues like, say, the economy.
Thus, even as Santorum and other Republicans express their disdain for jaded celebrities like Paris Hilton, they propose tax cuts to make her richer. And for all they complain about how TV networks make a mockery of "family values," they seek to allow Fox to own an ever-larger number of TV stations. Santorum's office may someday be the only place in America you won't see Paris Hilton. He has to keep her out, because the spotlight that follows her might shed light on his hypocrisy.
The only real surprise here is that Hilton wanted to appear with Santorum at all. She, of all people, should know not to stand too near the hired help.
Correction: Last week I wrote that US Airways pilots were preventing the airline from opening a "mini-hub" in Florida. While pilots have urged the airline to reach agreements with its unions before opening the hub, pilots have no say in the hub decision.