It didn't seem like too long ago that conservatives mocked the activism of liberal-minded Hollywood activists and the futility of their pursuits in far-off countries. But now the members of a congressional delegation to Russia over the weekend are praising one of their unexpected guests, Steven Seagal.
"Because of his black belt in karate and things, he has gotten to know many of the leaders of Russia, including Putin, and was able to use that influence to make sure that we got to talk to the very top people so that we could try to find ways of expanding our areas of cooperation," Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), who led the delegation, told CNN's Wolf Blitzer on Tuesday. Rohrabacher described Seagal as a "personal friend" and "a very well-respected actor."
He said that Seagal helped the delegation get to Beslan, the school where hundreds of young children were murdered by Chechen Islamic terrorists.
But the appearance of Seagal on the trip was one of those, "who knew?" moments when he appeared with the delegation in a press conference on Sunday. His career in the U.S. is far from what it was in the 90s, when he was a major action star with a studio contract. Not so in Russia, where his movies still have a large following. His efforts at "opening the doors" to the delegation, introducing them to Russian officials, drew comparisons to Dennis Rodman's effort at soft-diplomacy earlier this year when he trekked to North Korea and met Kim Jong-un.
Such celebrities as Sean Penn and Danny Glover have in the past drawn criticism on the right for their visits with Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, who died earlier this year, and likewise there is some push back on Seagal for getting too cozy to Putin and Ramzan Kadyrov, who rules Chechnya, the latter of whom has a particularly questionable human rights record.
"All these accusations are thrown around," Seagal said on Sunday, according to the AP. "Is there any evidence? Has he been indicted?"
Rohrabacher, too, warned against snap judgments. "We shouldn't be describing people who are under this type of [terrorist] threat, we shouldn't be describing them as if they are Adolf Hitler or they're back to the old Communism days."
Russian News Agencies even reported on Tuesday that Seagal is bring tapped to lead an international marketing campaign to promote an arms plant, which would certainly elevate the art of the celebrity endorsement to a new level.
Seagal is only in the long line of celebrity diplomats -- some savvy, some actually successful, almost all faced with hefty doses of skepticism. The jaded public sees it as a way to drum up publicity, to improve a public image or bolster a faded career. That may be true, but would Rohrabacher's trip have gotten nearly this amount of attention without him?