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Acting the part

We are no strangers to actor-politicians.

TV anchorwoman Kari Lake, who has has embraced Trump’s election denialism, is now running for governor of Arizona.EMIL LIPPE/NYT

I had a friend in college who became a successful businessman. A few years into his career, he confided to me that he wished he had majored in drama because acting was the only skill he needed to succeed.

How good an actor was he? He convinced the Department of Labor to hire me as an economist. I majored in comparative literature.

Forbidden thoughts about acting in the public sphere flooded my head when I saw Ukraine’s first lady Olena Zelenska address congressional leaders last month. Zelenska described Russian atrocities and pleaded for more US weapons: “Russia kills, America saves,” she said.


She was posed, articulate, and persuasive: “God, she’s good,” I thought.

If by some miracle Ukraine emerges from the war even partially intact, it will be thanks to the amazing communications skills of President Volodymyr Zelensky and his wife. Zelensky was a comedian and television actor longer than he has been a politician. His wife was a screenwriter at their production company.

Zelensky’s immediate, dramatic assumption of the role of wartime leader — artfully costumed in army drab — has rallied not only his country but much of the world to his cause.

He is the rare example of a man meeting his moment. This is the role he was born to play.

We are no strangers to actor-politicians here. I remember the forgettable song-and-dance man, US Senator George Murphy of California effortlessly shivved by satirist Tom Lehrer: “We can’t expect America to win against its foes/With no one in the Senate who can really tap his toes.” The Golden State subsequently propelled future President Ronald Reagan into the governor’s office, later occupied by Arnold Schwarzenegger of “Terminator” renown.

Which brings us to Donald Trump. Trump succeeded on television, playing a version of himself for 14 seasons on NBC’s “The Apprentice.” His showbiz acumen flew under the radar of the chattering classes because the kind of people who read newspaper op-eds didn’t watch “The Apprentice.” But millions of other Americans did.


Trump — tutored by legendary “Survivor” producer Mark Burnett — knew television, and he rode the news cameras to victory in the 2016 presidential election. Extrapolating from his own success, he concluded that TV celebrities would succeed in political roles, too. This prompted some spectacularly uneven White House hiring, landing such diverse staffers as the unloved but knowledgeable John Bolton and the unloved and moronic Sebastian Gorka — “Dr. Sebastian Gorka” to you — in the West Wing.

Trump is at it again. He has anointed television phenomenon/Oprah creation Dr. Mehmet Oz as a US Senate candidate from Pennsylvania, and celebrity football demigod Herschel Walker in Georgia. It’s easy to sneer at these candidates on social media but that won’t predict their fate at the ballot box. The polling site fivethirtyeight.com calls Walker’s Georgia race a “tossup.” It’s worth remembering that neighboring Alabama elected football coach Tommy Tuberville, a man who thought the three branches of government were “the House, the Senate, and the executive,” to the upper chamber two years ago.

Oz is behind, but his opponent, Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, doesn’t seem to have fully recovered from a recent stroke. The New York Post described a Fetterman speech a week ago as “sometimes halting.”


Trump has found a new vessel for his mischief: a successful Arizona TV anchorwoman, Kari Lake, now running for governor. She has opposed vaccine mandates, suggested that one of her primary opponents was sympathetic to pedophiles, and, most importantly, she has embraced Trump’s election denialism: “Deep down, I think we all know this illegitimate fool in the White House . . . didn’t win,” she told The New York Times.

Her position on abortion seems to be, “Um, let’s see what the polling says in late October.” Fivethirtyeight.com currently calls Lake’s race against Democrat Katie Hobbs a “tossup.”

Guess what? Lake is great on TV. Looking the part is half — no, three-quarters — of the battle.

Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.