The Old Scout

Garrison Keillor's weekly newspaper column.

The Care and Feeding of Ex-Celebrities

February 10, 2009

The new musical that's moved into Washington -- New All-Star Cast! New And Cooler Songs! Awesome Dance Numbers! -- has bumped the old attractions off the avenue. The wax museum of Ann Coulter, the Fox vaudeville acts, the woofing of Rush and O'Reilly -- they're playing the VFW circuit now. When Barack and Michelle walked down Pennsylvania Avenue on Inauguration Day, you could tell just by looking at them that the photographers are not going to be lying in wait for Sarah Palin just now. You heard the sudden sucking sound of vanishing celebrity, but it's not the worst thing that can happen to a person.

If you travel around by commercial jet, you've seen formerly famous people waiting at baggage claim, people who once had an entourage and who now tote their own baggage. You turn and there he is, standing right smack next to you -- Dan Rather, Hulk Hogan, Walter Mondale, some old rock 'n' roller with a vestigial ponytail -- and what do you say? You smile and say hello. Maybe you ask what brand of hair product they use. You try to frame a compliment.

The American people tend to be painfully courteous to the ex-celebrity. They might stare at Mr. Giuliani and his enormous incisors but they're not likely to say, "Glad ya lost, ya big weasel," or "How's your pal Bernie Kerik doing these days?" or "Saw your speech on small-town values at the Republican convention, and I wonder what you'd charge to come out to Thief River Falls and speak to our Kiwanis Club" -- no, sir. Americans may boo the referee and rag on the president and talk back to the dopes on TV, but they are not shoe-throwers, and if you're a household name who became a trivia question, they're not likely to give you a hard time. Americans assume it is terribly painful to have once been a big enchilada and now be a mere taquito.

Au contraire.

I speak as a recovering celebrity myself. You're too young to remember, but twenty-some years ago, aboard a flight to Rawalpindi, I took over the controls of a 747 whose crew was incapacitated by bad sushi and yours truly landed the craft at Pago Pago despite no pilot training and poor sense of spatial relationships and I swam through shark-infested waters with a rope in my teeth that enabled a tug to tow the plane past the reef and into safe harbor. Front-page stuff and I was on all the talk shows and now I'm subletting a motor home in Anaheim, but I have reinvented myself as a guru, and my book, "The Wisdom of Failure," is getting a lot of buzz. It says that defeat is an opportunity. I think it's going to be very big.

If your mission to expose the liberal conspiracy was met with defeat in November, there is no reason you can't retool and sell diamond rings on the Shopping Channel. Or found a megachurch in Colorado Springs. You just need to switch oysters.

America loves second and third acts. A heavyweight boxer retires from the ring and starts peddling grills. A White House aide becomes a novelist. A famous actress who went down the detox-rehab trail now does a funny stand-up routine about it. There is no reason to let a trademark languish just because the product becomes passé. Diversify. Retrain. Get a makeover.

I am seeing Rush Limbaugh as an actor in action movies, a sort of Nero Wolfe supersleuth who, though he never leaves his luxurious New York brownstone and his rare orchid collection and his personal chef Fritz, uses his superior powers of ratiocination to locate the missing uranium bars in the cellars beneath the great mosque in Tehran. I am seeing Ann Coulter as someone who can revive the professional female wrestling franchise, and I am seeing Rudy Giuliani as a name brand of work clothes and steel-toed boots.

And then there is the Former Occupant himself, who is busy deciding on carpeting and window treatments in Dallas. Building a presidential library is not going to be enough for him. And I am seeing him as a late-night TV host. The man has a definite resemblance to Johnny Carson, and the American people would enjoy watching him chat with authors and kid around with Angelina or Beyoncé as they introduce their film clips. People would tune in every night to reassure themselves that he's not in charge of anything anymore and that would be wonderful. Simply wonderful.

© 2009 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, INC.

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