Actor Hill Harper is best known for his role on the CBS drama “CSI: NY,” where he plays Dr. Sheldon Hawkes, among other film and television roles. But right now, Harper has taken on another role: parlaying his celebrity status into a campaign for presidential hopeful Barack Obama.
What sets Harper apart from other high-profile Obama endorsers is a 20-year friendship with the candidate, dating back to their years at Harvard Law School. Here, TODAYshow.com talks to the actor about his public support for Obama, the effect of celebrity endorsements and the man behind the public figure.
Q. You've known Barack Obama since your time at Harvard Law School. Why, besides friendship, do you support Obama?
A: You can't really separate the two. I've known him for almost 20 years — I met him the first week of class. I looked up to him, and not just because he's taller than I am!
He went to law school knowing why he was going. I went straight from undergrad to grad school. He had a sense of gravitas and judgment. I looked up him then and I look up to him now. He gets it right. He's extremely intelligent, extremely pragmatic. That’s the kind of leadership we need now. Everything that was great about him at Harvard Law School is still great about him now. Anyone who meets him understands how wonderful a leader he is. [If he gets elected, I believe] he will go down as one of the greatest presidents in history.
Q. Why did you decide to go public with your support for Obama?
A: It's important for someone like me — who's known Obama for 20 years — to speak the truth. I know him to be a Christian man. I know him to be one of the greatest patriots. Only in this country could he do what he's doing. What makes this country the greatest county in all the world is that it is a participatory democracy. But voter turnout rates have been low — the participatory democracy only works when people participate.
Also, the Obama campaign is the most efficient campaign in the history of politics — that’s what we want to bring to government. And being CEO of a campaign is [a lot like] being president. People are afraid of an unorganized, wasteful government.
Q: Have you publicly endorsed other candidates in other elections?
A: One time in Florida for Kerry … I did an event because his campaign asked me to.
Q. What kind of reaction have you gotten from people while campaigning for Obama?
A: It's heartening when people hear for the first time that their vote really matters. I'm excited about voters getting involved for the first time.
But once I spoke at a high school football game, and a group of men approached my car, and said, “I like you, I like your show, but I won't vote for anyone that looks like you.” It was a race-based comment, a hurtful comment.
But I've loved being around this country talking to people. This is the greatest country; there's a huge amount of diversity. I just want people to vote, mainly. We should be past the point of divisiveness when it comes to race, gender, politics.
Q: How do you think your political endorsement as a celebrity affects voters?
A: Voting is an individual, personal thing. This is about my ability to speak to individuals one-on-one, but it's up to them to make their own decisions. I'm able to counteract some of the misinformation that’s going out. Misinformation is coming from people who are used to practicing divisive politics. In my opinion, there's no reason why this election should even be close. There's no question that Barack Obama is the best candidate right now. Look at his experience, his judgment, the people he surrounds himself with, like Warren Buffett.
Q: What are your thoughts on McCain-Palin? How do their policies hold up to Obama’s?
A: Their policies are the same as George Bush's policies. They're making themselves sound different, the “mavericks.”
But what people never discuss is this: The president appoints [so many new] people that run the government. If you elect McCain-Palin, nearly all those people will stay the same. If you elect Obama-Biden, those people will be new.
Q: Are celebrity endorsements effective in politics?
A: Other celebrities’ endorsements do have an effect. But I would like for them to be educated on the policies so they don’t look uninformed. People listen for cues — when they are searching for a decision, they look to people they know. Young people can be apathetic in certain ways unless they hear from someone they like and admire about why they should be engaged and involved. If someone you love is doing a rally or concert, you may be engaged to register.
One more thing I want to mention: The Rock the Vote campaign was very effective in getting young people to register. But there was no follow-up mechanism to make sure they actually voted. The Obama campaign has done a great job in follow-up and outreach.
Q. How has Obama changed since his Harvard days? What qualities remain the same?
A: He's become more intelligent, more committed to helping people on a larger and larger scale. But he's still the same person. He called me on my birthday right when he was about to speak to 65,000 people, before the Oregon primary. He's a good, genuine person, a good father and husband. What people often don't see is that he has a great sense of humor, a great smile, a great laugh. He loves sports, football, basketball, golf. He loves ESPN SportsCenter — although he doesn't get to watch it much!
Q: Is it your celebrity status or your personal relationship with Obama that most informs your role as an endorser?
A: The celebrity gives me the platform: 15 million people watch “CSI"” every week. Once I have the ears, I can talk about this man who I've known for 20 years — that gives me the legitimacy and insight and the ability to speak authentically about how great he will be.
Q: What do you think the outcome of this election will be?
A: I have no idea. I just know I have to keep doing the work. The election is not going to be about ads, debates, poll numbers — but convincing people to vote. We need a high voter turnout. This is the most important election of our lifetimes, because our country is truly at a crossroads. We are suffering in many ways, and Washington is part of the cause. We need a change in Washington. Obama-Biden represents that change, and I hope the country recognizes that.