When Political Props Outlast Their Usefulness

George Zimmerman's kind of celebrity has a long tail.

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Every once in a while an American citizen is plucked from obscurity and held up as the perfect embodiment of the political moment. These citizens are used as props by politicians, made into household names, and then, when the moment passes, are promptly discarded. But a small hitch in this noble tradition is that the newly-semi-famous citizens do not let go of their fame just because they are no longer useful. This kind of political celebrity has a long tail.

The most famous of these citizens right now is George Zimmerman, who was acquitted this summer of second-degree murder in the killing of Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman was held up by many conservatives as a victim of the "civil rights industry," someone attacked by a liberal lynch mob that cries racism where none exists. But now that his trial is over, Zimmerman is not, as Salon's Joan Walsh pleads, going to "go away." He toured a gun factory. His brother Robert gave interviews to Fox News and The Daily Caller saying President Obama was showing a double standard by commenting on Martin's death but not on the death of a white guy who was shot by black teenagers. On Monday, the Orlando Sentinel reported that Zimmerman's lawyers plan to file a motion requesting the state of Florida pay $200,000 and $300,000 of Zimmerman's legal fees. Since Zimmerman was acquitted, Florida law requires the state to pay all legal fees but the cost of his lawyer. Florida agencies have already spent $902,000 to try Zimmerman, meaning that if his lawyers file the motion and it's successful, the total cost to the state will be well over $1 million.

"I’m sorry, America, we’re stuck with the Zimmermans," Walsh writes. "They won’t go away." Looking at past everymen elevated to such political heights, she's right. Let's check in with some of our favorites.

Everyman: Tuffy Gessling

Occupation: Rodeo clown

Discovery: At a Missouri State Fair rodeo on August 10, Gessling wore an Obama mask while another rodeo clown made comments like, "We’re gonna smoke Obama!" and "He’s going to getcha, getcha, getcha!" Gessling pretended to put a broomstick in his anus. The video went viral, people said it was racist, Missouri politicians condemned the act, and Gessling was banned for life by the Missouri Rodeo Cowboy Association.

What he stood for: The Oppressive PC Police. Gessling defenders celebrate him as a victim of the liberal PC police who are the truly intolerant ones trying to destroy the First Amendment. "Liberals want to bronco bust dissent. But Texans value speech, even if it’s speech they don't agree with," Texas Rep. Steve Stockman said. They want to crush dissent by isolating and polarizing anyone who questions Obama, even if it's a rodeo clown with a harmless gag." The Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan said "a classy Obama move" would be to issue a press release saying he loves free speech and thinks Gessling shouldn't be fired.

Where is he now? Gessling is still telling his story. On Monday, he told KCTV5 that he got five death threats. "I've had one lady spit in my face — called me a dirty name, spit in my face and walked off," Gessling said. "I've had somebody threaten to run me over. One of them wanted to burn the house down." He said it was a joke, and not racist: "I don't care what color somebody is." And he thinks it's a symbol of a bigger problem: "I actually think that a lot of people have lost their ability to laugh." He's inviting politicians to see his act, including the one he made fun of. "If President Obama turns out, I would be honored to shake his hand," he said.

Everywoman: Carrie Prejean

Occupation: Beauty queen

Discovery: In the April 2009 Miss USA pageant, Prejean, competing as Miss California, was asked whether the U.S. should legalize gay marriage. She said no, calling it "opposite marriage." California pageant officials pressured Prejean to apologize, but she refused.

What she stood for: Evangelical Resilience in the Face of the Intolerant Liberal PC Police. Prejean spoke the Liberty University convocation in 2009. She got a book deal out of her answer, a memoir titled, Still Standing: The Untold Story of My Fight Against Gossip, Hate, and Political Attacks. It was published a mere seven months after the controversy; Fox News' Sean Hannity wrote the forward. "I have never felt more exposed, alone, and vulnerable in my life," she wrote, explaining how she felt the moment she was asked a question on a political topic at a beauty pageant. "I was being dared — in front of the entire world — to give a candid answer to a serious question. I knew if I told the truth, I would lose all that I was competing for: the crown, the luxury apartment in New York City, the large salary — everything that went with the Miss USA title." But she gained so much more! 

But the publicity was a mixed bag. She walked off the set of Larry King Live when the host asked her about her settlement with pageant officials, and an erotic video she starred in was released.

Where is she now? Prejean is the rare case that seems to have settled into domestic bliss. She married football player Kyle Boller, who has retired. They had a baby in 2011. In September, they sold their Del Mar, California home for $2.35 million, $200,000 less than they paid for it in November 2010, according to the San Diego Union Tribune. Every once in a while, she's used as an example of liberal intolerance. An op-ed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in August 2012 named Prejean as an example of "the hostility, contempt and even outright bullying directed at those who oppose same-sex marriage has exploded in recent years."

Everyman: Joe the Plumber

Occupation: Plumber

Discovery: In October 2012, Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher met then-Sen. Barack Obama on the presidential campaign trail and asked, "I’m getting ready to buy a company that makes 250 to 280 thousand dollars a year... Your new tax plan is going to tax me more, isn’t it?" Obama said a bunch of stuff about tax rates and concluded, "I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody." John McCain dubbed him Joe the Plumber and mentioned him a whole bunch of times in the final presidential debate. Thus a meme was born.

What he stood for: Small Businessmen Standing Strong Against Socialism. Joe was just a regular guy who wanted to work his way into wealth without Democrats making it impossible with high taxes. He was also a symbol of the white working class.

Where is he now? The plumber had a varied and illustrious career after the 2008 campaign. In 2009, he became a war correspondent for PJ Media and reported from Gaza. He showed up at Tea Party rallies 2010 and protested against unions in Wisconsin in 2011. He also spoke out against anti-puppy mill legislation. In 2012, he ran for Congress in Ohio, releasing a campaign ad that was a near-verbatim quote of an email forward. Democratic incumbent Marcy Kaptur defeated the plumber by 50 points.

Earlier this year, the plumber launched JoeforAmerica.com, a website with conservative commentary. In February, he gave away an AR-15. On Tuesday, he wrote a post asking if Obama would blame Duck Dynasty "for the disaster he’s created and for the roadblocks preventing him from wreaking additional havoc on America."

Everywoman: Cindy Sheehan

Occupation: Mom, anti-war activist

Discovery: Cindy Sheehan's son Casey died in the Iraq war in 2004. Sheehan and other families of troops who died met with then-President George W. Bush not long after he died. But in August 2005, Sheehan traveled to Crawford, Texas, to camp outside Bush's ranch and demand a second meeting. That made her famous. Her protest lasted a couple weeks before she announced she'd take her protest national

What she stood for: Everything That Was Wrong with the Iraq War. The way Sheehan framed her protest turned her into a symbol. She didn't call for better care of veterans, or families of the dead, or a different strategy in Iraq. She focused on why the U.S. invaded Iraq in the first place. She told reporters"I want to ask George Bush: Why did my son die?"

Where is she now? Fame did not suit her. Sheehan slowly squandered the mainstream respectability she had early in her protest years. In 2006, she hugged Hugo Chavez. She ran for Congress in 2008 against then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, because Pelosi hadn't tried to impeach Bush. She lost by 55 points. She was arrested protesting Obama multiple times. In 2011, she declared the death of Osama bin Laden to be a hoax. Last year, she declared she would not pay back taxes to an "immoral" government, which was suing her. On Tuesday, she announced she was running for governor of California.

(Photos by the Associated Press.)

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.