mother jones
In their quest for political power, a handful of movie millionaires have decided to rewrite the traditional script. Now they're leaving Washington on the cutting-room floor.
January/February 1991
By Ronald Brownstein
Art Director: Kerry Tremain


“We’re so arrogant if we think we can foist our ideas on American people,” says one of the film insider. “We can fall flat on our faces unless we think it through.”

During all the electoral sparring last fall over the crisis in the Persian Gulf, rising oil prices, taxes, and the environment, an unlikely dispute over the political role of Hollywood erupted in several races.

The political role of Hollywood?

That's right. In Texas, Colorado, Indiana, and Washington, Democrats who had accepted financial help from the movie industry were forced to defend themselves against Republican charges that they had more in common with the bright lights and rarefied liberalism of Hollywood than the stolid, main-street values of their home states. In the Texas gubernatorial race, Republican cowboy-entrepreneur Clayton W. Williams toured conservative East Texas-the traditional heart of yellow-dog Democrat country-and taunted Ann Richards as an "East Hollywood Democrat." In Indiana, Congresswoman Jill Long fended off accusations from her Republican challenger that she had "insulted" veterans by accepting a contribution from a Hollywood group affiliated with Jane Fonda.

Hollywood liberals were outraged by these attacks, but they should have been flattered. The charges represent a testament to the growing seriousness of Hollywood's participation in national politics. For the GOP, Hollywood's intensifying assertiveness, measured in both money and glamorous appearances, behind a liberal agenda has become a nagging concern. "From a financial standpoint, if we could make Democratic candidates leery of taking money from Hollywood… we would really help ourselves," said one Republican political operative.

In 1992, Hollywood could be more politically active than in any campaign since 1972, when dozens of stars trooped off the back lots for George McGovern. Only this time, it is likely that the stars will be appearing not only for individual candidates, but also for their own organizations, pushing their own agendas on such issues as abortion, the environment, and censorship.

As the 1990s begin, Hollywood's political role is subtly shifting. For the new decade, the model for star politics may become last fall's California environmental initiative known as Big Green -a campaign in which stars from Bette Midler to Meryl Streep helped raise much of the money and provided some of the most visible public advocacy. Politicians, with the exception of state assemblyman Tom Hayden, a sort of honorary member of the Hollywood tribe through his lapsed marriage to Jane Fonda, were considerably less noticeable. That is becoming the new order of things in Hollywood: stars in the front of the bus, politicians in the back.

Emerging currents in national politics, as much as Hollywood's attitude, are driving this change. Increasingly, campaigns are turning not on the traditional measures of ideology but around questions of cultural values. And that is terrain on which Hollywood stars feel as comfortable as any politician.

Consider the unlikely issues George Bush used to obliterate Democrat Michael Dukakis's early lead in the 1988 presidential campaign. Under the direction of Lee Atwater, the Bush campaign manipulated such symbols as the flag, Dukakis's membership in the American Civil Liberties Union, gun control, and, above all, furloughed black Massachusetts convict Willie Horton, Jr., to question the Democrat's patriotism, to suggest his values were too liberal for ordinary Americans, and to hint he would be too pliant to the political demands of blacks. Atwater pushed to the edge of propriety, and in some cases beyond, but generally he had his fingers on the buttons that triggered the voters' deepest anxieties about the Democrats' values.

Atwater reinforced his themes with references to popular culture and selected campaign appearances by celebrities. During the campaign, Bush had around him almost as many country-and-western artists as secret service-from Chet Atkins to Loretta Lynn and Crystal Gayle. Touring Illinois in a bus with the candidate, they helped generate invaluable evening-news footage of guitar strumming with the down-home veep.

The company of these country artists highlighted Bush's pork-rinds side; each round of "Stand By Your Man" pushed into the background the blue-blooded son of a senator that the Democrats had so successfully painted at their convention. The campaign augmented this new image by regularly surrounding Bush with such stoic cinema loners as Chuck Norris and Arnold Schwarzenegger. To Atwater, they served the same function that rock stars did for George McGovern sixteen years earlier: they brought the candidate to the attention of an audience that might otherwise have never tuned in to the campaign-in this case, mostly less-educated and working-class young men with minimal interest in politics.

For the buttoned-down Dukakis campaign, the politics of culture merited barely an afterthought. It was months before the Democrats understood how the symbols Bush employed-from Willie Horton to Chuck Norris-had reshaped the race; and when they did, it was too late to do anything but complain that Bush was obscuring the real issues, a questionable proposition given the importance of cultural values to voters.

"We did a terrible job on that," lamented John Sasso, Dukakis's closest adviser, after the campaign. "It is key because… you are going to be in people's living rooms every night. They want to know you relate to the same things they relate to, and it's not just the budget and education… it's entertainment and culture. We don't get it. If we do get it, we don't use it."

One incident epitomized the failure. During the campaign, Danny Goldberg, a shrewd, energetic young rock manager, proposed a cultural assault on Dukakis's Harvard-yard liberal image by holding a fund-raising concert in Nashville with country artists. In a memo to the campaign, Goldberg explained that the event offered "an opportunity to embrace Reagan Democrats and be seen with the music they love."

All his fervor failed to catch any attention and the idea died. "I think they had a blind spot about the culture," he said wearily, one day after the campaign. "I think the people around Michael Dukakis, George Mitchell, Richard Gephardt are not listening to talk radio, are not watching prime-time television, are not going to see the top movies, and someone around Lee Atwater is. Democrats had 90 percent of the [celebrity) fish this year and they (the Republicans) did better with their 10 percent."

Unhappiness about the way the Democrats employed Hollywood during 1988 was intensified by the fact that the film-industry liberals had provided hundreds of thousands of dollars to help fund the campaign. By the end of the 1980s, political fundraising, like competition for the best parking spaces, had become a nonstop activity in Hollywood, and the relentless pressure for money began to stir its own backlash.

"I'm angry about it, because I think that it is simply not right," said Fox, Inc., chairman Barry Diller, one day during the 1988 campaign. "It's not right for our entire political sensibility to be mostly governed by the level of checks that we write, and it is terribly wrong for the candidates to be in that kind of endless position of looking for money.

There is not a good thing to be said about the amount of money that's spent as well as the money gathering that it necessitates. It's rotten. Rotten to the core."

And with that spreading sense of unease-as well as the realization that candidates were more eager to take home money than ideas from Hollywood-a far more ambitious approach to politics began to coalesce. The new agenda entailed the systematic transmission of the Hollywood Left's own political messages through the mass media. If candidates wouldn't listen to their ideas on how to sell liberalism, some of the Hollywood figures thought, why not implement those ideas themselves?

Disappointed with the Dukakis campaign, Danny Goldberg became the first Hollywood liberal to move down that path since Norman Lear founded People for the American Way to combat the fundamentalist Right after the 1980 campaign. In October 1987, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California named Goldberg chairman. When Bush attacked the organization in 1988, and Dukakis proved incapable of defending it, Goldberg responded with television commercials using Burt Lancaster and cast members from the hit NBC show L.A. Law. It was, incredibly, the first time the ACLU had ever sold itself through television advertisements.

Goldberg approached the task of defending the ACLU not as if he were preparing for a final exam at Harvard Law School-roughly the Dukakis campaign's approach-but from the same gut level that the Bush campaign aimed its attacks. "In thirty seconds you can't make a lot of substantive arguments," he said at the time. "But you can evoke some emotions." Which the ads did, focusing tightly on the venerable figure of Lancaster as he turned the Bush campaign's taunt into an affirmation: "I'm Burt Lancaster and I have a confession to make," he said. "I'm a card-carrying member of the ACLU."

After the campaign, the interest in shaping political messages quickened in Hollywood. The extent of this conversion to direct involvement can easily be overstated: it was confined mostly to a handful of independent but like-thinking individuals. In New York, celebrities gathered into an organization called the Creative Coalition out of a sense that as symbols they had "potential power, whether we deserve to or not," said actor Ron Silver, one of the group's founders. "The culture works in sound bites. We don't have discourse; we have bumper stickers. If that's the way it is going to be functioning politically, you look for icons, images that can get the message across as quickly as possible, as effectively as possible. Nobody [is] better in the world than celebrities."

Hollywood's awakening in 1989 to environmental issues most dramatically displayed the community's eagerness to find new ways to influence political debate. The sudden greening of Hollywood -which acquired the intensity of a revival- drew on the general social concern, fanned by fears of the greenhouse effect and depletion of the ozone layer, that moved environmentalism to the top of the nation's agenda after the 1988 election. But in the film community, what coalesced that diffuse interest was the disenchantment another Hollywood activist felt with a political career built on muscling friends for checks.

By fall 1988, attorney Bonnie Reiss, the former treasurer of the Hollywood Women's Political Committee, was looking for a way to express her political ideals more directly. At the suggestion of Marge Tabankin, the executive director of HWPC, she attended a conference in Washington, D.C., on global warming. After listening for three days to the dire predictions of rising oceans and wheat fields reduced to deserts, all delivered by eminent scientists to eminent scientists, Reiss rose from her chair and said, "This is all very disturbing and impressive, but wouldn't one mention of the problem on The Cosby Show reach more people than all your books and papers?"

It was a suggestion that instantly struck a chord with some of Reiss's audience in Washington. Among the people at the conference intrigued by Reiss's suggestion was veteran liberal gadfly Jeremy Rifkin, who has made a career out of popularizing issues at the most distant junctions of science and politics. Inspired by her own vision of Bill Cosby spreading the green revolution, Reiss arranged for Rifkin to visit Hollywood a few weeks later, hoping to use the trip as the springboard to 'a mass attempt at organizing the industry for a mass public education campaign."

Rifkin flew out in December and, through a series of dinners, briefed a diverse assortment of industry leaders -from the brat packers at Meg Ryan's house to music industry figures at the home of Morgan Mason and his wife, rock singer Belinda Carlisle- on environmental problems. One of the dinners was hosted by Norman Lear, and a few weeks later, Reiss presented him with her idea for an industry-wide organization to insinuate environmental messages into television programs and movies. Lear agreed to provide seed money, and Reiss set off to organize the group.

By January, Reiss was "going like gangbusters," recruiting stars, attorneys, publicists. But she soon ran into a wall. Reiss envisioned a large and diverse organization with hundreds of members across the industry. That was not Lear's vision. As is his manner, Lear preferred to organize a small, elite group of senior executives to green the rest of the industry. Rather than accept that approach, Reiss went off to pursue her own idea, christening the group the Earth Communications Office (ECO). She quickly recruited dozens of industry figures, of varying stature and fame, to her organization. Meanwhile, Lear and his wife, Lyn, went ahead and formed their own group, the Environmental Media Association (EMA), whose board included only a handful of industry heavyweights -and some very well-placed wives.

Though they represented different philosophies of political organization, the two groups shared a common approach to political communications. Each was built on the belief that, through its dominant position in the culture, Hollywood can change political attitudes and personal behavior. As the Lears' organization argues in a message to supporters, "Films, television programs, and music have a unique ability to infuse the popular culture with a particular message."

EMA worked with production companies and studios to insert environmental messages directly into scripts and to encourage filmmakers to tackle environmental subjects. Reiss's approach was more eclectic: It included working with producers, but also encouraging stars to shoot environmental public-service announcements and urging recording artists to include environmental messages on their album liner notes. It has become almost impossible to avoid those messages: Candice Bergen recycles bottles on Murphy Brown; Barbra Streisand and Belinda Carlisle have inserted pitches for the environment in their latest albums; and characters on thirtysomething volunteered to combat construction of a local incinerator.

Tremendous communications skill is concentrated within Hollywood, and all these activities -from the environmental groups to a concerted pro-choice campaign by the HWPC to People for the American Way- represent the most serious effort ever to focus that resource into a political agenda. Given the power of television and film in society, and the way that celebrities can set models for behavior, there is enormous potential in that attempt, particularly in efforts to suggest alternatives in daily living, such as carpooling and recycling.

And yet there are grounds for caution, too. One reason is that the portion of the Hollywood environmentalists' effort that uses the public's television airwaves to subtly proselytize for a private political agenda creates a precedent that must be carefully examined. To the extent that the effort involves the equivalent of inserting noncontroversial public-service announcements into the body of television shows, there's little to quarrel with; the "disease-of-the-week" television movies already do the same. But if the effort moves beyond that to support an environmental vision of the proper energy path, or strategies to combat the greenhouse effect, or specific legislation, it could involve the networks in the public transmission of private propaganda disguised as entertainment.

Obviously, television sends out messages of all sorts all the time. But even those sympathetic to the environmental cause need to consider whether they want to see the television networks systematically employed as the tools of competing ideological groups. Would the Hollywood activists feel so comfortable if conservative writers and producers gathered to infuse television programs with the subliminal message that Mikhail Gorbachev is a fraud and the cold war is not over? Or if the auto manufacturers and electric utilities gathered to insert into programs the argument that the threat from the greenhouse effect has been exaggerated?

On its own terms, too, the Hollywood Left's effort to assume a more direct role in broadcasting political messages may in some respects become counterproductive. Even some of the most prominent Hollywood activists see the need to proceed carefully. "We're so arrogant if we think we can foist our ideas on the American people," said Patricia Medavoy, one of the founders of Show Coalition, a Hollywood political group built on the ruins of the 1988 Gary Hart presidential campaign. "We can fall flat on our faces unless we think it through."

Two concerns leap out. One is the same problem that candidates face when trying to appeal here: Hollywood lives so differently from ordinary America that its perceptions of the political mainstream are often skewed. The early messages the Hollywood activists sent on the environmental and abortion issues found that vital center-but there remains the danger to liberals that the Hollywood communicators, as they grow more confident, will burden them with unpopular elitist appeals on social and foreign policy issues. For all Hollywood's conviction that it has its fingers on America's pulse, selling movies is not really comparable to selling political messages. (As Warren Beatty observed, a moviemaker can do just fine appealing to only 10 percent of the public; the politician has to worry about 50.1.) And many of the Hollywood activists simply have no contact at all with the vast, rolling blur of flyover states between Los Angeles and New York.

Once, Congressman Lee H. Hamilton, the stolid, crew-cut Democrat from Indiana and former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, addressed a group of about sixty-five west-side and Hollywood liberals at the home of Stanley Sheinbaum. After taking questions for half an hour, Hamilton noted their direction and posed one of his own: How many people here have been to Indiana? he asked. Two or three hands rose sheepishly in response. Hamilton paused a second, and then, with the slightest hint of a twinkle in his impassive eyes, asked: How many people here have been to Nicaragua? Instantly, he faced a forest of upraised palms.

A second reason liberals might be cautious about a more visible political role for the film community is that Hollywood's lifestyle leaves it open to charges of hypocrisy when pushing some of liberalism's core messages: restraint and self-denial for the public good (on the environment, for example) or social fairness (in economic policy, say). Without major changes in personal behavior, the Hollywood environmental activists, among others, run the risk of embodying one of liberalism's most damaging stereotypes: the wealthy do-gooder who tells others to tighten their belts for the common good. "Look at the individual lifestyles," said Bob Hattoy, the Southern California regional director of the Sierra Club, and a skeptic of the Hollywood role. "It's consumptive to the point of greed and avarice. L.A. represents the worst of the consumer society, and these people are the worst symbols of that. Individuals may help, but I don't think with the industry of Hollywood we [the environmentalists] are in good hands."

Causes, no less than candidates, can be dismissed as trendy when too much Hollywood glitter surrounds them. Early focus-group testing by Reiss's organization found enormous resistance to celebrities delivering environmental advice, except where they could directly tie it in to their own lives. Reiss is sensitive to this: she understands that before her group can send out stars to preach conservation, she will have to convince some of them to surrender their Porsches and BMWs.

Maybe she will be able to, but more likely she won't. Hollywood is a community with an extraordinary lack of self-awareness. Without a tradition of serious press scrutiny, it has never developed an ability to see itself clearly or critically. It is generally too self-absorbed to recognize even the most blatant hypocrisy. At the first meeting of the Lears' EMA, the sensitive, energy-conscious Hollywood moguls showed up in gas-guzzling luxury cars and stretch limousines. No screenwriter would dare such a caricature of limousine liberals; it would be too ludicrous to imagine if it weren't true. Another example: When the Southern California ACLU held a conference on cultural censorship in 1989, the assembled Hollywood liberals gleefully took the cudgels to the New Right philistines trying to censor obscenity on rock records or sex on television. But no one questioned the alleged attempts by powerful agent Michael Ovitz and actor Dan Aykroyd to prevent distribution of the film Wired, about the death of John Belushi, because they disapproved of its portrayal of Hollywood in general and Belushi in particular. That was different. That was Hollywood.

After any sustained exposure to the Hollywood politicos, such examples make it difficult not to conclude that, for some people in the film community, political "beliefs" are nothing more than another consumer good, that political activities, like a good psychiatrist, are just another means of boosting self-esteem -a way of saying: "I'm rich, I'm powerful, I'm important, and, you know what, I'm a good person, too. If I wasn't, I wouldn't have Ted Kennedy in my living room." This sort of public therapy is not, by any means, the only consideration that drives people from Hollywood into political activism; an enormous assortment of psychological, ideological, and even business considerations bring together the capitals of glamour and power. But there's no denying Hollywood is rank with the self-satisfaction that money breeds.

Despite all that-in some ways because of all that-the film community's growing interest in direct political action is no surprise. It merely extends the pattern that has guided the relationship between Hollywood and politics since the dawn of the television age: the solidifying consensus among many stars and moguls alike that they are more committed to a liberal agenda than are the flighty, undependable politicians.

More importantly, the continued compression of political dialogue into sound bites and visual symbols guarantees that causes and candidates will routinely seek out celebrities who can attract cameras and flash cultural signals to the public. At the same time, as a walk past any newsstand will attest, neither the media's tendency to personify issues in individuals (including the cover of the magazine you're holding) nor the public's hunger for news about famous people shows signs of abating. These trends have combined to make fame a very tangible form of social power in America. To be famous is to have a public voice. And, in any society, to have a public voice is to have influence.

When evaluating whether Hollywood figures deserve that influence or "belong" in politics, it makes more sense to discuss these basic trends than the propriety of ill-informed actors mouthing off about issues they do not understand. When that occurs, it is lamentable. But politicians often do the same thing. The real problem is that political debate is being reduced to symbols and sound bites, not that Hollywood figures are increasingly being used to supply them. The improbable credence given to many Hollywood figures as political spokesmen is merely a reflection of a more unsettling truth: that, as author Neil Postman has observed, in the television age, credibility derives as much from "the impression of sincerity, authenticity, vulnerability, or attractiveness" as from experience or knowledge. Hollywood activists are not even the best (worst?) examples of that phenomenon. Ronald Reagan demonstrated its validity far more as president than he ever did as an actor campaigning for Barry Goldwater or Harry Truman.

Hollywood stars are an ineradicable part of the political world we have made; but they did not make that world, and they should not be blamed for it. It's easy to overstate their impact: In all but very rare cases, they are only supporting political players. If stars could transfer their appeal directly into votes, as pollster Peter Hart notes, "we would just look at Q scores [a star's favorability rating], and Roseanne Barr, Bill Cosby, or Harry Reasoner would choose our next president." Stars do not choose our presidents. They do not establish our political trends. They only respond to them, and their growing political prominence merely illuminates the other, less visible, changes that have remade our politics under television's unblinking eye. Put another way, Hollywood has not trivialized American politics; politicians, their consultants, the disengaged public, and the inexorable demands of television for abbreviated debate have trivialized American politics. We have all lowered the level of discussion to a point where stars can more easily participate.

That may be unfortunate but it is irreversible. To say that Americans would make better political choices if they did not receive most of their information from television is like saying they would better understand the politics of France if more of them spoke French. It's true, but irrelevant. Television is the dominant medium of debate in American politics, and its requirements will continue to reshape the form of political communications. The challenge for politicians is to find ways to communicate complex ideas and sympathetic values under those rules, not to condemn the rules-or the Hollywood figures who have found meaningful if limited roles to play within them.

In the end, it is difficult to blame the stars for exploiting those opportunities. For all the posturing and self-indulgence, all the hypocrisy and inanity that sometimes mark Hollywood's political activities, Hollywood is too deeply embedded in America's culture to be isolated from its politics. The film community is crowded with people who confuse having money with having something to say. But for many others in Hollywood-probably, in fact, most of those who work with causes-participation in politics represents nothing more than an opportunity to give something back to a society that has rewarded them beyond their wildest imaginations. When they speak genuinely, and from their own experiences, stars can move the public as effectively as any politician-sometimes even more effectively, because they speak from a place politicians almost never approach: the inside of their audience's imagination. And from that privileged and intimate position, the most sincere and skilled can invest expressions of belief with not only glamour but dignity.


"No one politician is trained to make the thousands of decisions that politicians are called an to make. When you watch two congressmen debating the nuclear freeze, they are going to be in the same position as Charlton Heston or Richard Dreyfuss or anyone else. The question is not who is going to be more expert, or who has more information the question is going to be which one is more effective communicating emotionally."


"I think the public is innately suspicious of the self-forwarding, publicity-seeking, capricious artist who would like to attach some mood of seriousness to his persona by participating in public affairs."


"The fact that you have a built-in platform because of your visibility doesn't mean it is easily convertible into votes or persuasion because you have the platform…It doesn't mean you are going to win a point.”

Ronald Brownstein is a national political correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. This has been excerpted from The Power and the Glitter: The Hollywood-Washington Connection, to be published in January by Pantheon.