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Postcards From the Left | The Nation

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Postcards From the Left

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Comrade Reagan

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Marc Cooper
Marc Cooper, a Nation contributing editor, is an associate professor of professional practice and director of...

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At the biggest Democratic event of the campaign season, Obama argued that the coming election is a choice between the past and the future rather than a referendum on his first two years in office.

He'll probably fend off J.D. Hayworth, but in order to win he's lost most of his principles.

The shift in Hollywood's political contours since the pressurized times of the Reagan Administration has been tectonic.

When Jack Nicholson, Barbra Streisand and Alec Baldwin all showed up last December 16 at a rally of close to 1,000 people in front of the Los Angeles Federal Building, it was to oppose Clinton's impeachment (it took place rather glumly on the same day the President launched his military attack on Iraq). But fifteen years ago, in the salad days of the Reagan regime, Hollywood celebs like Mike Farrell, Edward Asner, Bob Foxworth and Michael Douglas--organized into the Committee of Concern--would draw twice that number for an ideologically more meaty protest against US policy in Central America. In the summer of 1984 TV star Bob Foxworth and his late wife, Elizabeth "Bewitched" Montgomery, set up a huge tent on their Benedict Canyon estate (once owned by director Howard Hawkes) and brought in hundreds of donors and activists to clink drinks with Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega. Ed Asner stood on the steps of the State Department, announced the formation of Medical Aid for El Salvador and presented the first $25,000 relief check for war-ravaged communities there. A few weeks later CBS canceled his show, Lou Grant, but Medical Aid went on to raise several million dollars for the cause. "There was a certain sense of purpose in Hollywood back then," says Mario Velasquez, a former Washington lobbyist for the Salvadoran FMLN guerrillas who went on to run Medical Aid until its shutdown in the early nineties. "When I would say I had been with the FMLN I could get a meeting with any producer in Hollywood. And they would write out the checks with the feeling they were part of something bigger than themselves."

Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden nurtured a younger generation of Hollywood activists dubbed the Network and threw them into battle on several fronts--from Central America to toxics. Twentysomething producers and budding actors formed Young Artists United and joined the fray against the political right. Heady times. Much of this work of the liberal left was channeled around and through the Hollywood Women's Political Committee. Founded in 1984 by Jane Fonda, producer Paula Weinstein, songwriter Marilyn Bergman and a handful of other powerful Hollywood women, the HWPC leaned heavily leftward. Over its thirteen-year history it dispersed $6 million to liberal, feminist, pro-choice, environmental and peace candidates. Along with its companion, the Hollywood Policy Center, the HWPC held forums and seminars, published a regular political alert bulletin and generally served as a network for activist Hollywood. "On the one hand we raised money from Hollywood's midlevel crowd," says HWPC's last executive director, Lara Bergthold. "But we also educated our own people. We gave them a narrative, a cause, a more progressive place to be than just the Democratic Party. But now that's all gone."

All gone, says Democratic consultant Carrick, because the Hollywood activists--like much of the rest of liberal America--were more demobilized than energized by the ascension of Clintonism. "In the 1980s, there was an enormous edge in what Hollywood got out of politics. There was the juice of big issues like Nicaragua, abortion, Reagan and Bork. There was real tension not only with the Reagan Administration but also within the Democratic Party. But the Clinton presidency had a great moderating effect. Hollywood hadn't had a close relationship with the White House since JFK, and all of a sudden in came Clinton. The ideological heat of the eighties evaporated overnight." So did much of Hollywood's political organization. The Show Coalition, which specialized in presenting a series of nonpartisan educational teach-ins on issues of the day, receded into the background. The Creative Coalition, founded in 1989 by Ron Silver, Susan Sarandon, Alec Baldwin, Christopher Reeve and Stephen Collins and recently chaired by Alec Baldwin (succeeded last year by his brother Billy), became an almost exclusively New York group. After the Hayden-Fonda divorce in 1989, the Network got folded into the HWPC. And Young Artists United seemed to just fade away.

Swept Away

The HWPC and like-minded activists survived into the nineties but found their role changing. Some hearty souls like SAG's Richard Masur and The Creative Coalition's Ron Silver threw themselves headlong into the fight for single-payer healthcare. But the Democrats seemed more interested in escalating their money demands. "It's like they saw us as nothing more than overripe cash cows with triple udders," says one of the groups' veteran activists. As disillusionment crept in, there was some internal discussion about disbanding HWPC in 1994. But a consensus was reached to stick it out through Clinton's re-election. It all finally came undone in September of 1996, when the HWPC, along with the Democratic National Committee, Ron Burkle and David Geffen, co-hosted the Los Angeles Presidential Gala. Barbra Streisand, Tom Hanks, the Eagles and others performed for an exhilarated President Clinton. A mountainous $4 million was raised in that one sitting--a stunning success. But behind the scenes, the DNC had strong-armed the HWPC into raising ticket prices so that the cheapest seat was $2,500. You had to pony up $25,000 to get into a smaller after-concert dinner with Bill and Hillary.

Worse, just a few weeks before the dinner, Clinton shocked the HWPC core by signing the welfare repeal bill. "At the beginning of '96 we agreed with Geffen and [supermarket magnate] Ron Burkle to hold this gala. But after our name was on everything it was clear we had lost control to the DNC," says former HWPC chief Bergthold. "We had simply lost influence because we were being outspent. Then, when Clinton signed welfare reform, that was the last nail. We withdrew in every sense except in name."

Some seven months after the gala, the HWPC took the dramatic step of disbanding. Its demise has left a vacuum. SAG's Masur says, "That sort of one-stop center for what's going on hasn't been replaced." But Bergthold has no laments. "We did the right thing in disbanding," she says. "We just couldn't continue to go on raising money for a process we could no longer believe in."

Tom Hayden, now a California state senator, remembers his experience of bringing together the Network in the eighties as a "catalytic" effort. "The Network served as a transition into politics for many Hollywood people," says Hayden. "But it was hard to herd a pack of Hollywood celebrities through the thicket of candidates coming in to take their money. After it collapsed, people went on working on their own issues. Now they have their own personal political advisers." The level of activism today might be, as Hayden contends, as high as in the eighties, but it is also more diffuse, more individualized. Different celebrities manage different issues. Last year, for example, director Rob Reiner mounted the successful campaign to pass California's antitobacco Proposition 10 (though its supposedly progressive nature is mitigated by its regressive tax on poor people). Richard Dreyfuss concentrates much of his work on issues affecting inner-city youth. Holly Hunter and Morgan Fairchild--along with many others--are active in the pro-choice movement. Alfre Woodard, Denzel Washington and Blair Underwood support Artists for a New South Africa, which grew out of the antiapartheid movement. And Norman Lear has given millions--about $5 million last year--to Democratic causes and to civil rights, media (including investments in The Nation), democracy and lesbian and gay causes. People For the American Way, the group he founded in 1980 and helps fund, fights on First Amendment and separation-of-church-and-state issues--though this last year it found itself sidetracked into an expensive media campaign defending President Clinton against impeachment.

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