A Brief History of Political Cameos, From Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton

Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 16 2010 12:57 PM

A Brief History of Political Cameos, From Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton

Did Richard Nixon have higher standards than Bill Clinton? Perhaps the larger question is best left for some boozy afterparty at a college debate tournament, but at least on the thespian front, it seems Bubba's less discriminating: People is reporting that Clinton has signed up to make a cameo in The Hangover 2 . (Major plot points in the first Hangove r included friends-roofie-ing friends and a toothless, drunken Vegas marriage to a stripper.) Nixon, meanwhile, reportedly spurned a $500,000 offer from Jean-Luc Godard to shoot a 20-minute segment in his 1987 King Lear .

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There is a rather rich history of political cameos on both the silver and small screen (even if we exclude Reagan and Schwarzenegger and all the many actors-turned-politicos.) And despite his distaste for the French New Wave, Nixon was probably the guy who started the snowball rolling, with an appearance on Laugh-In , meant to humanize him and repair the damage done to his image during televised debates against Kennedy. Thereafter, politicians (or their handlers) saw cameos as a quick way to acquire a "fun guy" image (or, I suppose in the case of Clinton, to capitalize on that pre-existing image.) Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger appeared on Dynasty  (alas, not in bespangled shoulder pads). Back when he was a good-humored maverick, John McCain made an appearance in 2005's Wedding Crashers , which came back to haunt him in the 2008 election after he accused Barack Obama of being a "celebrity." Some politicians parlay their power and influence to live out childhood fantasies; Sen. Patrick Leahy , a Batman buff, parlayed his into a voice role in the animated Batman  and made cameos in 1997's  Batman and Robin and 2009's The Dark Knight .

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There's also a female veep candidate who played herself in a big-deal Hollywood movie—but probably not the one you have in mind. Geraldine Ferraro made a cameo  in Contact . Another failed Democratic candidate of the '80s, Michael Dukakis, had his ankle fixed on the Boston-based medical drama St.Elsewhere when he was the governor of Massachusetts. (TV cameos, by the way, seem somewhat more common. Sen. Barbara Boxer went on Curb Your Enthusiasm recently.)

Mayor of New York City is a pretty good job if you want calls from casting agents; Rudy Giuliani did a turn in the Jack Nicholson vehicle Anger Management ; I'd also nominate him for any future Nicholson biopic, or vice versa . Sitting Mayor Mike Bloomberg appeared on 30 Rock and A Muppet's Christmas: Letters to Santa . Film buff Ed Koch was also in a Muppet movie (this writer's favorite, Muppets Take Manhattan ) and racked up "Self" credits in lots of titles, including Sex and the City , Spin City , The Hebrew Hammer and The First Wives Club (though he seems to prefer criticism to acting). It also helps to be Al Sharpton, who's been in everything from Malcolm X to Madea Goes to Jail to Mr.Deeds .

Films about politics are, of course, a natural place for political cameos. Running Mates , a 2000 film about a handsome governor running for president, featured bit appearances from people who might only be considered true celebs in wonky circles—Mike Kinsley, Susan Estrich, Mark Shields, Margaret Carlson. The high-water mark for political cameos thus far came in the film Dave , which features appearances from a host of elected officials—including Chris Dodd, Tom Harkin, and Tip O'Neill—alongside influentials like Fred Barnes, Kathleen Sullivan, Nina Totenberg, and John McLaughlin.

My two favorite political cameo stories both come from The West Wing . While Aaron Sorkin wasn't shy about having famous actors take bit roles on the series, he avoided having actual elected officials on the show, since he wanted the world of his show to track closely—but not actual overlap with—the real political world. But then-candidate George W. Bush didn't pick up on that, nor on the show's obviously liberal leanings. A staffer contacted the show, asking if Bush could make an appearance, even to play something so humble as a pizza boy. No dice. Meanwhile, Rahm Emmanuel apparently found, or forced, his way around the ban, making a seconds-long shadowy appearance as an obviously important but otherwise nondescript politico.

Slate readers, I've surely missed plenty of political cameos.Fill in the gaps for me in the comments.

Photograph of Bill Clinton by HoangDinh Nam/AFP/Getty Images.

Noreen Malone is a senior editor at New York magazine.