Where did Val Kilmer get the bright idea that he could ever be elected the governor of New Mexico? At 49, he’s an aging movie star who has logged lots of memorable screen time—as Ice Man in Top Gun, for instance—but zero political history.
As his top billing winds down, “Governor Kilmer” must have a nice ring to it. The actor has been spending much of the past few months consulting strategists, spin doctors and politicians about a possible career move—and tantalizing professional Democrats in the Land of Enchantment with the possibility that he might jump into next year’s free-for-all to succeed the term-limited Bill Richardson.
Val Kilmer—top gun of the Land of Enchantment? Why not? We’re at a point in our national narrative where Ashton Kutcher can claim more followers on Twitter than The New York Times has subscribers. High office for a Hollywood (or some subspecies of) celebrity is not as outlandish as it once was—say, five or 10 minutes ago.
Kilmer has been serious about this, and the powers that be in Santa Fe have been taking it seriously.
The reductio ad absurdum of this phenomenon—or maybe it’s just a reasonable consequence—is the recent declaration by male reality starlet Spencer Pratt, best known as Heidi Montag’s husband on The Hills, that he’s going to be a candidate for something, somehow. “Definitely going after mayor of L.A. and at least governor,” the inevitable campaigner told the celebrity blog Pop Sugar. “I’ll probably stop at governor.” At least the lad has a sense of perspective.
Democratic media consultant Steve McMahon, a veteran of Howard Dean’s much-heralded and fast-fizzled presidential campaign, sees a trend of more and more showbiz types—even beyond old-Hollywood’s Warren Beatty, new Hollywood’s George Clooney, and right-wing Hollywood’s Gary Sinise—willing to consider jumping into the fray.
“People are aware that Barack Obama burst onto the scene at the 2004 convention before he was even elected to anything,” McMahon says, though Obama was in fact an Illinois state senator. “And four years later he was able to put together an army of passionate supporters and that was sufficient to topple the frontrunner in the primary and win the presidency…Every actor is aware of what Schwarzenegger has done. As the saying goes, ‘there, with the grace of God, go I’”—and with rapidly accelerating velocity. “It’s gone from the 24-hour news cycle to the 24-minute news cycle,” McMahon says, “and the smart political operatives and politicians understand that and take advantage of it.”
McMahon, of course, has been closely advising Kilmer as he contemplates a future in politics. Politically savvy PR guru Ken Sunshine—whose clients include another potential Hollywood candidate, Ben Affleck—has also talked with Kilmer about his possible run for governor. Kilmer has been serious about this, and the powers that be in Santa Fe have been taking it seriously. The actor has been a frequent visitor to Washington, D.C.—where I spotted him and McMahon navigating the mediapolitical complex at Saturday’s tented lunch in the backyard of television producer Tammy Haddad, before the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, schmoozing with the likes of Debbie Dingell, David Gregory, and Mary Matalin.
McMahon became Kilmer’s adviser through the good offices of Republican media strategist Jim Lake, who didn’t know Kilmer until mutual friends asked him to lend the actor his riverfront house in Alexandria, Virginia, during Obama’s inaugural festivities.“Val is a really good guy, sort of down to earth, and he comes from an artist’s perspective rather than a political perspective, but he really cares about New Mexico,” Lake says. “He has a 6,000-acre ranch a ways outside of Santa Fe, a beautiful place, and he’d like to do something for New Mexico, which is one of the poorest states in the Union,” Lake says. “He cares about the environment and talks about how they need better public education. He did some campaigning for Obama, and Bill Richardson has been a friend of his. So friends have come to Val from time to time and said, ‘You should run for governor.’ ”
Lake is a veteran of the Ronald Reagan juggernaut. Reagan wasn’t nearly as good an actor as Kilmer, but he was a first-rate politician even before he ran for governor of California in 1966. Kilmer is an earnest student, Lake says, but still retains a lot of naivete about the art and science of politics.
Thus, at Tammy Haddad’s lunch, he almost, but not quite, gave cause for great relief to New Mexico’s Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, who so far is unopposed in next year’s Democratic primary.
“Can I call you governor?” Haddad teased the actor. “No,” Kilmer demurred. “Are you going to run?” Haddad persisted. “Probably not,” Kilmer said. Not by any means a Sherman-like statement, but rather the standard locution of a potential candidate not ready to make a decision, let alone an announcement, and keeping his options open.
For the moment, Val Kilmer’s political education continues, and if not this time, then in due course, the Ice Man cometh.
Lloyd Grove is a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.