Unfortunately, the George Clooney Op-Ed Was Really Good

Fame

Sometimes it takes a big Hollywood name to rally the masses.

George Clooney in front of his New York Times op-ed on Joe Biden stepping down.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Neil P. Mockford/Getty Images.

At the risk of revealing Americans to be as shallow as the rest of the world thinks we are, recent history shows that in this country, a celebrity cameo is sometimes what it takes to make a news story feel, well, real. In early March 2020, for example, the COVID pandemic started to seem a whole lot less far away and notional for some of us after we learned that national treasure Tom Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson, were sick with the virus. So maybe it’s a good sign that as Democrats scramble and squabble over the question of whether Joe Biden should stay in the presidential race, George Clooney has entered the fray.

On Wednesday, Clooney published a New York Times opinion piece urging Biden to step aside, under the headline “I Love Joe Biden. But We Need a New Nominee.” The gist is not especially different from other opinions that have been bandied about in recent days—we all saw what we saw, we can’t pretend otherwise, and Biden needs to do the right thing—but it does mean a little something extra under Clooney’s byline (and the piece is well written to boot). Without any of the word-mincing that has characterized Democrats’ sound bites over the past few days, Clooney writes, in no uncertain terms, that Biden has got to go, in prose that at times sounds right out of a fragment-happy screenplay. After observing that it wasn’t just Biden’s performance at the debate but any opportunity that Biden might “walk off Air Force One or walk back to a mic to answer an unscripted question” that now has Democrats collectively holding their breath, he writes, “Is it fair to point these things out? It has to be.” It has to be. Eloquently put, Mr. Clooney! (Any chance Clooney’s famously learned wife, Amal, pitched in to help ghostwrite? Probably not—the short sentences read way more Hollywood than human rights lawyer.) If this is the kind of straight-shooting, “I’m just gonna level with you here” dialogue we’re used to seeing in movies, maybe that just means that Clooney has decided that this is that rare real-life moment that truly deserves film-style dramatics.

Personally, as a normal-ish person who tries to follow these things but has no special knowledge of political machinations, circa Tuesday I was starting to feel as if the momentum for Biden to drop out was losing steam. If that’s the outcome you’re holding out for, there’s hope to be found in the Clooney piece: Powerful people still want this! And haven’t given up on it! It’s worth noting that Clooney hasn’t been especially present in public life lately. For someone who was as big as he was 20 years ago, it’s almost Obama-like how little we hear of him and how much he has receded from pop culture in recent years. To me, that makes it all the more exciting that he’s stepping in to say something—we’re so back, baby!—but it’s unclear how much currency his star power has for the average person at least a decade out from the height of his fame.

And strangely, Clooney’s perspective as a star may be less valuable than another perspective he brings to the piece: that of a party insider. He has held some of the top fundraisers for Democrats. Or, as he puts it in the op-ed:

I have led some of the biggest fund-raisers in my party’s history. Barack Obama in 2012. Hillary Clinton in 2016. Joe Biden in 2020. Last month I co-hosted the single largest fund-raiser supporting any Democratic candidate ever, for President Biden’s re-election.

When he says he’s been part of these behind-closed-doors conversations that only the rich and powerful are privy to, we believe him. Clooney, who has interacted with Biden for years, tells us that he has seen for himself a clear difference in the president’s appearance and behavior, and not just at the debate but at fundraisers as well. Other people in the position to know such things haven’t gone on the record, but George Clooney, of all people, now has. Sure, he doesn’t have as much to lose as most people if Trump wins, because he can just retreat to his home in Lake Como, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a little brave for him to speak out this way. (Biden’s campaign, for its part, has responded by questioning George Clooney’s stamina: Multiple news outlets late on Wednesday reported some form of this quote, from a source familiar with the event planning of the recent Clooney–Biden fundraiser: “The president stayed for over three hours, while Clooney took a photo quickly and left.”)

Again, will Clooney’s words and influence make a difference? Who knows. Maybe the rest of the Ocean’s Eleven cast will weigh in while we await further developments. Elliott Gould, start typing. Don Cheadle, where are you on this? And if it turns out that the only way to steal the Democratic nomination is with some kind of heist situation, we’ll have just the crew for the job.

  • Celebrities

  • Joe Biden

  • New York Times

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