Monday, October 04, 2010

Circus or Spotlight? Celebrity Testimony Before Congress

Stephen Colbert's September 24th testimony before Congress has faded from the news, but one repercussion of the event has been a rekindling of the debate on the value of celebrity testimony before Congress.

As the article above points out, Colbert's appearance before congress is hardly the first time a well-known media celebrity has testified. The list of celebrities – well-known musicians, actors and actresses, professional athletes, and popular authors – who have appeared before Congress includes some surprising figures. More surprising, perhaps, are the varied reasons for their testimony.

Can you guess which one of these doesn't belong here?

In August of 1940, two years before he starred in the film Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart was called before the House Special Committee on Un-American Activities, to answer questions as to whether he was a practitioner, supporter, or affiliate of any known Communist organizations. In his testimony, Bogart comes across as direct and perhaps disbelieving any genuine affiliation between "Hollywood types" and organizations that were then considered radical.

James Cagney, appearing in the same hearings -- and who had co-starred with Bogart the year before in The Oklahoma Kid -- had a tougher go with the Special Committee, and is asked to explain multiple investments made to organizations and funds who, according to Congress, had a dual purpose in supporting Communist principals.

The experience, and indeed the very purpose of the House Un-American Activities Committee, is a far cry from the humor-filled atmosphere of Colbert's testimony in support of migrant farmers.

More typical examples of celebrity appearances before congress include efforts to encourage funding for research against a particular disease. Still others are to raise awareness about causes of international interest.

Ben Affleck, in July 2001, appeared before the Senate Subcommittee on Labor, HHS, and Education Appropriations as part of a Special Hearing on the "Promise of the Genomic Revolution.". The actor testified to the committee to increase awareness of the disease ataxia-telangiectasia, and to discuss his friendship with a boy whose ability to communicate verbally and in writing were both affected by the disease.

Like Colbert, Affleck injects a fair amount of humor into his testimony, in particular regarding his value as a witness. Hearing the qualifications of the speakers to precede him, Affleck characterizes his appearance before the committee succinctly:

Unlike Colbert, however, Affleck's approach also allows Congress in on the joke:

Though gauging the benefit of this Hearing to an external audience is difficult, the result within Congress itself is an attentive Committee and a mutually laudatory experience between the Senate and its witness.

Another example of Congress enjoying the company of one of its witnesses is when the muppet, Elmo, appeared before the House Subcommittee on Labor, HHS, and Education Appropriations in 2002 to advocate for music education.

The transcript shows that time was allotted for Elmo's puppeteer to prepare, and that no cameras were allowed during that set-up. This is perhaps the most blatant example that Congress was a willing participant in the performance, and that, in effect, the Hearing chamber became a kind of stage upon which a fictitious character was allowed to perform. To the Committee's credit, however, Elmo is not questioned by any Congressional member – the testimony is a dialogue between Elmo and co-presenter. Nevertheless, in typical Elmo fashion, the monster ends his testimony with those words his fans always hope to hear:

These examples are by no means all there is to be found from celebrity voices. Here is a brief list, in no particular order, of celebrities who have testified before either the House or Senate in recent years. An asterisk indicates that individual has appeared before more than one Committee.

Sam Waterston ... John Legend ... Kevin Richardson ... Sally Field* ... Olivia Newton-John ... David Crosby ... Tim Daly ... Billy Corgan ... Josh Groban ... Michael J. Fox ... Issac Hayes* ... Danielle Steele ... Jonathan Lipnicki ... Shawn Colvin ... Kerry Washington ... Jessica Lange ... Gina Gershon ... Todd Rundgren ... John Denver ... Bono ... Jean Wyclef ... Wynton Marsalis* ... Alec Baldwin ... Christopher Reeves ... Kelly McGillis ... Nancy Sinatra ... John Travolta ... Mary Tyler Moore* ... Julia Roberts ... Sissy Spacek ... Dee Snider... Charleston Heston ... Jesse Ventura ... Sheryl Crow ... Tony Bennett ... Michael Crichton ... Anita Baker ... Linda Ronstadt

And very recently, actor Kevin Costner made the news for his June 17, 2010 testimony to the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship as a financial supporter of Ocean Therapy Solutions, one of the few companies manufacturing equipment that had a positive effect on reducing the amount of oil in the recent Gulf Coast oil disaster.

If you are interested in finding more celebrities who have appeared before Congress, you can search LexisNexis Congressional. Instead of looking for witnesses by name, however, an easier way to search is by career. For example, searching for terms like "musician," "recording artist," “ballerina," "pianist," "composer," "author," and “actress” in the Congressional Hearings will bring up those whose careers are categorized by such terms. When searching for an "actor," however, be on the lookout for the term used to describe "one that takes part in any affair" versus strictly the performing kind.

What makes Stephen Colbert's recent testimony unique, or perhaps what puts him in closest company with Sesame Street's Elmo, is that these two are among the very few to "perform" before Congress, or make their appearance as overtly fictitious characters rather than as stated actors. That difference seems to have created, in Colbert's case, the greatest ire among observers of traditional Congressional etiquette.

The point is worth discussion: need a celebrity witness before Congress be friendly toward the group? Are Hearings legitimate platforms for performance, or even for performance art? Are celebrity testaments an oblique form of lobbying? And finally, what does celebrity status contribute to the value of a witness statement, and in which cases might that status work to a disadvantage for the proceedings or the participants? All good questions to ponder while we wait to see which celebrity Congress will entertain next.

[Thanks to Jennie Gerke and other staff in Government Information for help with this post.]

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