Showbiz Politics

Hollywood in American Political Life

By Kathryn Cramer Brownell

328 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 11 halftones, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-4224-6
    Published: February 2018
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-1791-6
    Published: November 2014
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-1792-3
    Published: November 2014
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-4597-9
    Published: November 2014

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Conventional wisdom holds that John F. Kennedy was the first celebrity president, in no small part because of his innate television savvy. But, as Kathryn Cramer Brownell shows, Kennedy capitalized on a tradition and style rooted in California politics and the Hollywood studio system. Since the 1920s, politicians and professional showmen have developed relationships and built organizations, institutionalizing Hollywood styles, structures, and personalities in the American political process. Brownell explores how similarities developed between the operation of a studio, planning a successful electoral campaign, and ultimately running an administration. Using their business and public relations know-how, figures such as Louis B. Mayer, Bette Davis, Jack Warner, Harry Belafonte, Ronald Reagan, and members of the Rat Pack made Hollywood connections an asset in a political world being quickly transformed by the media. Brownell takes readers behind the camera to explore the negotiations and relationships that developed between key Hollywood insiders and presidential candidates from Dwight Eisenhower to Bill Clinton, analyzing how entertainment replaced party spectacle as a strategy to raise money, win votes, and secure success for all those involved. She demonstrates how Hollywood contributed to the rise of mass-mediated politics, making the twentieth century not just the age of the political consultant but also the age of showbiz politics.

About the Author

Kathryn Cramer Brownell is assistant professor of history at Purdue University.
For more information about Kathryn Cramer Brownell, visit the Author Page.


“Brownell writes clearly, concisely, and incisively.”--Choice

"A valuable addition to the academic literature on the history of political advertising, the use of media in the political field and celebrity activism."--Cercles

“Brownell’s intriguing study challenges readers to consider an important transformation in modern American political life. She reveals that 'showbiz politics' were not just an amusing sideshow; instead, they became an integral part of opinion-shaping and governance.”--American Historical Review

“Brownell has authored a well-written and well-researched book that will command the attention of historians interested in how politics work in modern America. The evidence and materials she has brought together will provide historians with a new way to explore what has been lacking in the study of the United States: how art intersects with political power.”--Lary May, in the Canadian Journal of History

“This book makes clear that Hollywood entertainers, moguls ,and marketers became hugely powerful within our political culture—particularly related to the presidency—way before Reagan.”--Journal of American History

"In a superb book that will command immediate attention, Brownell takes familiar material and mixes it with new findings in such a way as to make the seemingly familiar new. One of the most sweeping studies of Hollywood and politics, Showbiz Politics places the evolving relationship between show business and those seeking the White House at the center of modern American politics."--Steven Ross, University of Southern California

Multimedia & Links

Visit the author's website,

Listen: Brownell talks to Joel Tscherne for the New Books in Film podcast. (4/10/2015, running time 1:07:16)

Watch: Brownell joins MSNBC's The Cycle for a discussion of presidents and Hollywood, from Hoover to Obama, from the campaign trail to The Colbert Report. (12/11/2014)

Watch: Brownell talks to WLFI's News 18 This Morning about the book. (12/4/2014)