Starring On Capitol Hill: The Celebrity Or The Cause?

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Washington, D.C., was dazzled this week by a VIP. He visited the White and got the prized seat next to the first lady at this week's state dinner.

No, we're not talking about British Prime Minister David Cameron, though he was in town also.

It was actor and activist George Clooney, in town to raise awareness about the humanitarian crisis in Sudan. In addition to getting arrested for protesting in front of the Sudanese embassy, Clooney also testified before a congressional panel.

Yet for all the excitement, there's nothing new about stars testifying before Congress. John Legend testified about the arts. Oprah Winfrey testified about child abuse. The late Elizabeth Taylor gave one of her best performances testifying about AIDS in 1992.

Back in '92, when a big movie star like Liz Taylor swept onto the Hill, dripping in pearls and diamonds, lawmakers and their staffers listened.

When George Clooney appeared in a suit with carefully manicured stubble, senators did the same.

Inside the hearing room, senators listened somberly to his testimony about Sudanese atrocities. Outside, women and men of all ages packed the halls to get a glimpse of the star.

Susan Toffler is a media strategist who normally doesn't attend Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings, but she happened to be in the building.

"George Clooney makes this special," she said. "Because he's doing a great job reaching out on behalf of Sudan — and he's in my age group!"

Jim Manley has worked on Capitol Hill for more than 20 years for Ted Kennedy, as well as George Mitchell and Harry Reid. He says the celebrities who come through town are almost always sincere and passionate about their causes, but:

"Beautiful though she may be, Angelina Jolie coming through town? Already seen that a couple of times before," he says.

Manley says as celebrities have gotten more and more involved in politics on the Hill, their impact has waned since the days of Liz Taylor.

In other words, star-powered awareness of worthy causes is becoming as fleeting as fame itself.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

 

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