But now, at ages 81 and 73, respectively, Dershowitz and Starr are back at center stage. They are the latest faded luminaries seeking to revive their fame—and blemish their reputation—by shilling for Donald Trump. Call it the revenge of the has-beens.
There’s nothing new about aging celebrities craving a return to the limelight. Many of America’s most famous athletes—Michael Jordan, Mario Lemieux, Reggie White, Ryne Sandberg—came out of retirement, usually with unhappy results. Gary Hart—a serious contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988—almost launched a long-shot bid two decades later, in 2004. George McGovern, the Democratic nominee in 1972, ran again quixotically in 1984. Mike Gravel, a former senator from Alaska who achieved notoriety by entering the Pentagon Papers into the official Senate record in 1971, unsuccessfully sought the 2008 Democratic and libertarian presidential nominations and entered—and soon dropped out of—the Democratic presidential race last year, at the age of 89.
The impulse isn’t hard to understand. Donna Rockwell, a co-author of one of the few academic studies on the psychology of celebrity, told me, “Fame is an addiction like any other addiction where one’s neurological set gets acclimated to a particular level of incoming stimuli. When that recedes, the neurology keeps grasping after that … People become addicted to being ‘in the show.’ And once you’ve been in the show and you know the heady experience that that is, there is a clamoring forevermore to be back in the show.” A former child actor told Rockwell, “I’ve been addicted to almost every substance known to man at one point or another, and the most addicting of them all is fame.”
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What’s new in the Trump era isn’t the yearning for political rehabilitation, but the opportunity. Trump’s recklessness, cruelty, and corruption have led many Republicans in the prime of their career to avoid working for, or publicly defending, him. “Help Wanted,” read a 2017 Washington Post headline: “Why Republicans Won’t Work for the Trump Administration.” In 2018, CNN reported that Trump was experiencing “an unheard-of problem: The president can’t find a lawyer.”
This has provided the has-beens their opening. One early example was Paul Manafort, who in the Ronald Reagan era helped run a lobbying firm that Newsweek once called “the hottest shop in town.” But by 2016, as my colleague Franklin Foer has detailed, this once “indispensable man,” now in his late 60s, was no longer “missed in professional circles. He was without a big-paying client, and held heavy debts.” The Trump campaign, which Manafort briefly ran, offered a “return to relevance.”
While Manafort was angling to be Trump’s campaign manager, Newt Gingrich was angling to be his running mate. Two decades earlier, Time had named Gingrich, then the 52-year-old Republican speaker of the House, its Man of the Year. But after a failed 2012 presidential bid, Gingrich’s star had dimmed, an excruciating prospect for a man who once said, “If you’re not in The Washington Post every day, you might as well not exist.”