The term “public figure” can be used to describe lots of different people. It might refer to politicians or elected officials, those who are literally public figures in that they work for the government, representing Americans, and toward the greater “public” good. Public figures might also be celebrities — movie stars, TV personalities, models, social media influencers, and musicians, or anybody else who lives their lives out loud, in the performative sphere.
Public figures of all kinds earn a lot of attention, and while it’s often and usually praise, sometimes it can skew negative. Politicians and celebrities alike put themselves “out there” in a big way, and passing laws, expressing opinions, and making art or entertainment can also put a proverbial target on their backs — one upon which other famous people may readily take aim. Here are some incendiary incidents from the past few decades where famous people from the show business sector butted heads with powerful Washington lawmakers — and in public, for all the world to see.
Clint Eastwood pulled up a chair for Barack Obama
It’s tough to count how many times Clint Eastwood played a tough-on-crime lawman doling out violent and deadly justice. Those films express the kind of sentiments that made him very popular with older, more conservative Americans, and Eastwood leans to the right politically in real life as well. In 1985, according to Mental Floss, he grew so miffed with Carmel, California’s resistance to letting him put up a bunch of office buildings that he ran for mayor of the town… and won. Eastwood went on to champion Republican causes and candidates, including endorsing John McCain for president in 2008. McCain lost to Democrat Barack Obama, and when the latter ran for re-election, Eastwood backed Republican challenger Mitt Romney and made that abundantly clear during an appearance at the 2012 Republican National Convention. Eastwood delivered a speech, styled as a conversation with Obama, represented by an empty chair, symbolizing the opinion that the president had been absent and unreliable for Americans. “This administration hasn’t done enough,” Eastwood said during his 12-minute speech. “I think possibly now it may be time for someone else to come along and solve the problem.”
While photos of an 82-year-old Eastwood yelling at an empty chair went viral, the most retweeted tweet during the entire RNC was one posted by Obama. It consisted of a photo of Obama, sitting in a leather chair with a metal plate on it reading “THE PRESIDENT” with the caption “This seat’s taken.”
Michael Moriarty butted heads with Janet Reno
According to the Los Angeles Times, both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate held hearings and considered legislation in 1993 to limit violent content on American television. Cultural watchdogs felt that TV had grown too dark and bloody, and that it was partially to blame for a perceived uptick in real-life street crime. Attorney General Janet Reno told the Senate Commerce Committee that she supported regulation, arguing that doing so is “constitutionally permissible.” Then Reno reached out to the TV industry to work out mutually agreeable decisions on cutting down on fictional violence, meeting with a group from NBC that included an executive and the network’s lead censor as well as “Law and Order” producer Dick Wolf, who brought along series star Michael Moriarty, who portrayed District Attorney Ben Stone.
As the Los Angeles Times noted, Moriarty emerged from the meeting upset and offended over Reno’s suggestion that TV violence led to real violence, as well as what he considered her disdain for television and constitutional protections. Then he tried to launch an anti-Reno and anti-censorship movement in Hollywood, running ads in entertainment industry trade publications criticizing Reno and censoring legislation. Failing to gain a toehold, Moriarty grew so disappointed in his fellow actors that he quit “Law and Order” and the American TV industry entirely and moved to Canada, according to CinemaRetro.
Seth Rogen duked it out with Ted Cruz
As NPR reported the day of his inauguration, President Joe Biden wasted no time in getting the U.S. back on board with the Paris Climate Agreement, an international movement backed by 200 countries that fights greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, took the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement, theorizing that environmental regulations limited economic growth and killed manufacturing and industrial jobs.
Sour over Biden’s swift executive action, Republican senator Ted Cruz tweeted that in “rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, President Biden indicates he’s more interested in the views of the citizens of Paris than in the jobs of the citizens of Pittsburgh.” (It should be noted that the Agreement seeks to curb pollution worldwide — it’s only got Paris in its name because that’s where the accord was signed.)
In response to Cruz’s aggressive and incorrect tweet, movie star and screenwriter Seth Rogen replied, simply and profanely, “F*** off you fascist.” Cruz doubled down, sarcastically calling out Rogen’s “charming, civil, educated response” before accusing him of being a “rich, angry Hollywood celebrity.” To whit: Rogen then accused Cruz of helping incite the January 6, 2020 storming of the Capitol and told him to “get f*****.” The fight was seemingly over until the following day. After Cruz tweeted about how the first film he saw at a movie theater was “Fantasia,” Rogen zinged back, “Everyone who made that film would hate you.”
The Dixie Chicks spoked out about George W. Bush
After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, President George W. Bush earned widespread support for a 2003 invasion of Iraq, executed on the idea that dictator Saddam Hussein was storing weapons of mass destruction. He definitely had the support of country musicians like Toby Keith, who scored a No. 1 hit on the Billboard country chart with “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),” a 9/11 revenge anthem in which the singer threatened to “stick a boot” in the collective rear-end of America’s enemies.
And then there were the Dixie Chicks (now known as the Chicks), one of the most popular acts in country music around the turn of the new millennium. In the lead-up to the Iraq invasion, according to History, the Texas-based Chicks played a concert in London, during which singer Natalie Maines got political. “We do not want this war, this violence. And we’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas,” she said. Her widely reported remarks led to her group’s songs being removed from country radio station playlists far and wide; Keith took to performing in front of a photoshopped backdrop of Maines and Hussein looking friendly.
President Bush even responded to Maines. “The Dixie Chicks are free to speak their mind. They can say what they want to say,” he said on “Today.” “They shouldn’t have their feelings hurt, just because some people don’t want to buy their records when they speak out.”
Alec Baldwin wanted to challenge Joe Lieberman
Alec Baldwin has long been one of the more politically outspoken and left-leaning members of the Hollywood elite. According to the Chicago Tribune, he even threatened to leave the United States if Republican candidate George W. Bush won the 2000 presidential election. However, Baldwin stayed in the U.S. when Bush did win, eking out a victory over Democrat Al Gore and running mate Joe Lieberman, a senator representing Connecticut.
Lieberman was also a Democrat, but far more conservative than most other elected members of his party, aligning with Republicans on some issues, according to Newsweek. He moved more to the right in 2006, when, after losing in a primary race, he dropped his party affiliation and won the general Senate election as an independent, enjoying substantial support from Republican voters.
In 2009, the still-progressive Baldwin floated the idea of challenging Lieberman for his Senate seat. “Maybe I’ll move to Connecticut,” Baldwin told Playboy (via CS Monitor). “I’d love to run against Joe Lieberman. I have no use for him.” When asked about the possibility of facing off against a high-profile movie and TV star on CNN’s “State of the Union” (via E! News), Lieberman was dismissive. “You know, make my day,” he said. “If he wants to run, that’s his right.” Days later, Baldwin announced that he would not, in fact, run for the Senate. (Lieberman then retired at the conclusion of his term.)
Jimmy Kimmel called Ted Cruz a 'blobfish'
Texas senator Ted Cruz calls Houston his hometown, and in 2018, the city’s Houston Rockets took the Golden State Warriors to a seventh and decisive game in the NBA Western Conference Finals. As NPR recounted, Cruz scored courtside seats and tweeted a picture of himself at the game, prompting “Jimmy Kimmel Live” host Jimmy Kimmel to compare Cruz’s appearance to that of a “blobfish,” which is a remarkably unattractive sea creature. Cruz took offense, and because basketball was the backdrop for the exchange, he challenged Kimmel, via Twitter, to a game of one-on-one. Kimmel accepted, and weeks later, the 47-year-old senator and 50-year-old comedian convened at a basketball court on the campus of Texas Southern University for the first (and only) “Blobfish Basketball Classic.”
As the two men huffed and puffed their way through the game — which took so long and so gassed both players that they agreed to cut the winning points number from 15 to 11 midway through — there was no love lost (although both donated $10,000 to Generation One and the Texas Children’s Hospital). “You’re a good sport,” Kimmel quipped after Cruz emerged victorious, 11 to 9. “I still think you’re a terrible senator.”
Glenn Grothman wasn't into Cardi B's Grammys performance
It’s an undeniable fact that “WAP,” the 2020 No. 1 hit by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, is an explicit, provocative, and frank invitation, depiction, and celebration of sex. The success of “WAP” led to an offer to perform the song on the March 2021 Grammy Awards telecast. Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion took to the stage for their first-ever live rendition of “WAP,” grinding, twerking, and dancing while wearing very little clothing.
Nearly a month later, Rep. Glenn Grothman hit the floor of the House of Representatives to criticize the “WAP” Grammys moment. While he’s not an official media watchdog like the FCC, and actually a Congressman from Wisconsin, he claimed that his office received numerous complaints about “WAP.” “Rightfully so,” he explained (via The Hill). “I assure the FCC that millions of Americans would view her performance as inconsistent with basic decency.” Then Grothman urged the FCC to better regulate the airwaves, less it continue to contribute to “the moral decline of America.”
Cardi B responded on Twitter. After wondering why “WAP” was the issue Rothman was raising, especially during the week of the Derek Chauvin murder case verdict and an ongoing discussion about police brutality in America. “They giving seats to F***** IDIOTS!!” the rapper added before imploring people to vote for candidates better than “dum a****” like Rothman.
Chrissy Teigen and Donald Trump battled on Twitter
Before he was banned from the platform in the waning days of his presidency, Donald Trump was a prolific user of Twitter, often using the social media network to criticize his political opponents or people that simply didn’t agree with him.
In 2018, the federal government passed criminal justice reform legislation, with support from both Democrats and Republicans, and Trump later took credit on Twitter. “I got it done with a group of Senators & others who would never have gone for it. Obama couldn’t come close,” he wrote (via NBC News). Then Trump wondered why — and with insulting words — some people talking about the greatness of the legislation after it passed were silent when the bills were a work in progress (per The Hill), specifically “boring” singer and pianist John Legend and who Trump called Legend’s “filthy mouthed wife.” That would be model, media personality, and fellow Twitter heavy user Chrissy Teigen. “Lol what a p**** a** b****,” Teigen, blocked by Trump on Twitter over many previous comments both political and pointed, filthily tweeted in response. “tagged everyone but me. an honor, mister president.”
Ted Nugent's remarks about Barack Obama didn't go over well
Classic rocker Ted Nugent — he had hits in the ’70s with “Cat Scratch Fever” and “Dog Eat Dog” — has made headlines in the decades since for his political viewers, which are decidedly anti-leftist. In 2007, according to the Journal Courier, he pinned the blame for “rising rates of divorce, high school drop-outs, drug use, abortion, sexual diseases and crime, not to mention the exponential expansion of government and taxes” on “stinky hippies.” That same year, during a concert in California, Nugent made some comments about three of the most prominent Democrats in the United States: presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and Senator Dianne Feinstein. “I was in Chicago last week, I said, ‘Hey Obama, you might want to suck on one of these, you punk!” Nugent yelled while hoisting an automatic weapon. “He’s a piece of s***.” Then Nugent called Clinton a “worthless b****” and invited her to perform an impure act on herself with his gun. As for Feinstein, Nugent called her a “worthless w****.”
At a 2012 National Rifle Association convention, Nugent said that if Obama were re-elected that year, he’d “be dead or in jail” within the year, according to the Washington Post. As Reuters reported, these comments earned Nugent a grilling from the Secret Service.
Murphy Brown took on Dan Quayle
A huge percentage of political humor from 1988 to 1992 was levied at Vice President Dan Quayle. The young politician (41 when he took office) was portrayed by an actual child on “Saturday Night Live,” while the hit CBS sitcom “Murphy Brown,” set at a hard-hitting TV news show, frequently took aim. “We had done a Dan Quayle joke every episode. It was a mandate in our writers’ room,” creator Diane English recalled to Yahoo! Entertainment. Show writer Korby Siamis told the outlet that Quayle’s “feelings got hurt, and he saw a way to get even” when he attacked “Murphy Brown” in a May 1992 speech.
Delivered shortly after white Los Angeles police officers were acquitted for beating Black motorist Rodney King and citywide riots broke out, according to The Washington Post, Quayle spoke at the Commonwealth Club of California. He blamed the rioting (and society’s ills) on the dissolution of “traditional” family values, but also Murphy Brown — a fictional, single mother. “It doesn’t help matters when primetime TV has Murphy Brown, a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid professional woman, mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone,” he said.
English released a statement in response. “If the Vice President thinks it’s disgraceful for an unmarried woman to bear a child,” she wrote (via The Washington Post), “then he’d better make sure abortion remains safe and legal.” And then English incorporated the feud into “Murphy Brown,” presenting Quayle’s comments as ones made against Murphy Brown within the show’s universe.
Dan Savage redefined Rick Santorum
In the early 2000s, Pennsylvania congressional representative Rick Santorum positioned himself as one of the chief ideologues of the ultra-conservative wing of the Republican Party. He often spoke about the perceived dangers of “liberalism” and how it leads to looser morals and a slippery slope in terms of sexual matters.”If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything,” Santorum told the Associated Press (via USA Today). Then Santorum made some more remarks which compared homosexuality to pedophilia and bestiality and blamed the Catholic Church molestation scandal on liberalism.
Dan Savage, author of the syndicated humorous sex advice column “Savage Love” and LGBTQ+ activist, fired back. According to HuffPost, Savage held a contest, asking readers to come up with a new definition for “Santorum,” the nastier, the better. The winning suggestion was not safe for work, to say the least.
News of the definition of Santorum spread so quickly that it became one of the top results when Google users type in the name of the Pennsylvania politician. Santorum (the person) even tried to get Google to snuff it out, but as the tech company said in a statement provided to CNN, “We do not remove content from our search results, except in very limited cases such as illegal content and violations of our webmaster guidelines.”
Tipper Gore and John Denver clashed about censorship
On Prince’s soundtrack to his 1984 movie “Purple Rain” was the song “Darling Nikki,” which recounted a wild one-night stand. According to Rolling Stone, the 11-year-old daughter of Senator Al Gore and his wife, Tipper Gore, was among the millions who bought the “Purple Rain” album, and when her mom heard “Darling Nikki,” she was shocked into action. Recruiting other congressional wives, Tipper Gore formed the Parents Music Resource Center. The PMRC convinced the Senate Committee on Commerce to hold a hearing on “Contents of Music and the Lyrics of Records,” which prompted many musicians to testify against the group’s overtures toward censorship or labeling albums deemed to contain explicit content.
Folk-country crooner John Denver delivered some of the most pointed testimony against labeling. “My song ‘Rocky Mountain High’ was banned from many radio stations as a drug-related song. This was obviously done by people who had never seen or been to the Rocky Mountains,” Denver warned. “What assurance have I that any national panel to review my music would make any better judgment?”
The PMRC also compiled a list of the most egregious popular songs of the day, nicknamed the “Filthy 15,” which included Twister Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” over its violent lyrics. When singer Dee Snider testified, he similarly called out the PMRC for having no idea over its ability to regulate music. “There is absolutely no violence of any type either sung about or implied anywhere in the song,” he said.
LeBron James wasn't bothered by Donald Trump's remarks
LeBron James is one of the greatest basketball players ever, a 17-time all-star, four-time NBA champion, four-time Most Valuable Player, and the youngest player in league history to reach 30,000 points. As the NBA’s most famous face, he also serves as an unofficial spokesman for the league and his fellow players, and in a 2018 interview with ESPN’s Cari Champion, James discussed more than just sports — he spoke about what it meant to him to be a Black man in 21st century America as well as his thoughts on President Donald Trump.
“The number one job in America, the appointed person is someone who doesn’t understand the people,” James said, then suggested that some of the president’s past remarks had been “laughable and it’s scary.” Later that year, after another thoughtful interview, this time with CNN’s Don Lemon, Trump hurled the insults. “Lebron James was just interviewed by the dumbest man on television, Don Lemon,” Trump tweeted (via CNBC). “He made Lebron look smart, which isn’t easy to do.”
James brushed it off. “That’s like somebody saying I can’t play ball,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “That doesn’t bother me at all. What bothers me is that he has time to even do that. He has the most powerful job in the world. Like, you really got this much time that you can comment on me?”
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