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Celebrity Campaign Contributions

About a month before the election, a small news story appeared about Bruce Springsteen performing a minor concert at a Barack Obama campaign rally. That brought to mind an earlier report of Barbara Streisand doing something similar and the big news from the primary season of Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement and appearance at an Obama event.

Those stories, and many less significant but similar instances of celebrities campaigning for various candidates, made me muse about the value of celebrity endorsements and how they should play into our paranoia about money and influence in political campaigns. It seemed (and seems) to me that celebrity endorsements are no less valuable when given for free to political campaigns than they would be if some company had to pay for them as part of their advertising strategy. The same is true of celebrities plying their trades on behalf of campaigns: they replace money a campaign would otherwise need to spend on publicity, yet they are not valued as money under the campaign finance rules.

I wrote this note to Jeff Jacoby at The Boston Globe in hopes of stimulating an intellectual discussion of the issue in the media (OK, I really kind of hoped for a political catfight). He didn’t take the bait and as far as I saw there was no mention of the idea anywhere else.

4 October 2008

It occurs to me to wonder…

I read today that Bruce Springsteen performed at an Obama rally. This reminds me in general terms of the “Oprah Effect” on Obama’s campaign during the primaries when she endorsed him at campaign events, and of the fact that Barbara Streisand did the same thing as Springsteen earlier in the year.

Springsteen and Oprah and Streisand are certainly citizens and have a right to express their opinions, even loudly. The fact that their opinions get a disproportionate amount of attention, despite no evidence that they are disproportionately informed or intelligent, is unfortunate but unassailable.

But Springsteen and Streisand are also world-famous musicians who each charge hundreds of thousands of dollars for a public concert. Oprah is also a world-famous opinion-maker whose endorsement would be worth perhaps millions to anyone in the marketplace who could buy it.

I am fairly certain that, if I owned a fleet of vans that I made a business of renting to the public and I donated them, gratis, to, say, the McCain campaign to drive their volunteers around, that would constitute an in-kind campaign contribution and would be subject to the limits imposed by various campaign finance laws and regulations. If Bill Gates decided to outfit some politician’s campaign offices with Microsoft Word without charging them for it, I am sure the same thing would apply. If a sign-maker contributed campaign signs, or the owner of a television station contributed air-time for campaign ads, I am sure those would both count as contributions as well.

So why can Springsteen or Streisand contribute what amounts to some tens- to hundreds-of-thousands of dollars worth of concert without tripping over those same regulations? Oprah’s case is trickier, since what she contributed was, in essence, her opinion.  But, then again, she is in the business of making money for precisely that; and, even if her endorsement wasn’t a contribution, surely her actual speech was — I’m sure she charges for making speeches elsewhere.

I can believe that, under the arcane finance laws, those acts are probably technically not campaign contributions.  But I have to wonder why. What makes them fundamentally different than contributing vans or software or signs or commercials?

I can understand that one may volunteer his personal time to help a campaign without that being a “contribution” per se, but should that still be true if the time you donate is spent doing precisely the same thing for which you would normally charge others a large amount of money — for, in fact, pursuing your profession on behalf of the campaign?

If Bruce Springsteen wants to answer phones at the campaign office or put flyers on car windshields or something, that’s one thing. When what he chooses to spend his time doing for the campaign is precisely what he is rich and famous for doing under other circumstances, it would seem that what he has contributed is some thing of value that transcends his mere time.

(C) Copyright 2008, Augustus P. Lowell

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