OPINION - George Clooney's Joe Biden remarks are a classic case of actors' privilege

 (Joe Biden)
(Joe Biden)

The United States president intimated recently that he would not step down as presidential contender until “the Lord Almighty” personally instructed him to do so. God has declined to involve himself in the Democratic Party nomination, but Joe Biden got the next biggest thing: a wounding repudiation by George Clooney. In a piece in the New York Times, house journal of the Democrats, he declared: “This is about age. Nothing more. We are not going to win in November with this president.”

It matters partly because Clooney is a game-changing fundraiser. The event at which he met Biden and decided he was as bad as he looked in the TV debate raised an astonishing £23 million for the re-election campaign. It also matters because Clooney can say things that normal politicians can’t. Witness the way Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic veteran, pretty well as old as Biden, pulled her punches in saying exactly the same thing as Clooney, only in a more weaselly way.

The point is that when celebs sound off, parts of the electorate who would rather think about anything else than politics perk up. And a remarkable number of stars long to be taken seriously. It is not enough to look like Clooney; he wants influence. He made earnest films before his marriage to Amal, legal champion of the Yazidis, but she’s given heft to his pitch. So, they have a Foundation for Justice to their name, as well as a brand of tequila.

When celebs sound off, parts of the electorate who would rather think about anything else than politics perk up

He’s not alone. Barbra Streisand, who was also at the fundraiser, was a political activist as much as an actress from the off. Julia Roberts is similarly uninhibited. They’re all Democrats; there is no modern equivalent of Ronald Reagan. And it may be that they can’t help it. As researchers investigating the acting philosophy known as The Method have pointed out, actors are almost abnormally empathetic; they tend to be at the other end of the emotional spectrum from autism. And that over-empathy translates easily into politics.

Naturally, actors have an unfair advantage over actual politicians — they’re prettier and more photogenic. But it’s not just actors who use their celebrity to swing politics. Here the obvious example is JK Rowling, who used her status as a cultural influencer to get involved in the toxic trans issue. Her intervention in the election campaign saying she found it hard to support Labour was enough to have Rachel Reeves scrambling to reassure her.

Sportsmen are at it too. Before the second round of the French presidential election, Kylian Mbappé (prior to France’s departure from the Euros) sounded off about the undesirability of the National Rally party; they didn’t win.

But celebrities need to tread carefully in seeming to tell politicians what to do. Marine Le Pen indirectly responded to Mbappé by observing that the French people are tired of being lectured at. When David Tennant said he would rather Kemi Badenoch didn’t exist, because of her trans stance, she made a woker-than-thou reposte about being a black woman. Rowling is having to take as well as give the punches on the trans thing.

The obvious response from Biden to Clooney would be, if you don’t like me, well, stand yourself. That would really call him to account, wouldn’t it?

Melanie McDonagh is an Evening Standard columnist