To hear conservatives describe it, the only video appearances that hurt John Kerry more than that of Osama bin Laden were those of Hollywood celebrities, who united behind his candidacy as never before. As Andrew Sullivan describes it, “the Hollywood Left” lost the election for John Kerry (at least when he’s not insisting that the fault somehow lies with Noam Chomsky). This kind of vituperation has a strong pedigree among right-wing demagogues. L. Brent Bozell complains that Hollywood is filled with “political dilettantes…leftist celebrities” who are “America-haters.” Dorothy Rabinowitz terms the world of Hollywood political liberalism to be one of “elitist scum” who “live in…an alternate revolting universe.” Bill O’Reilly went her one better, comparing Bush-fighting Hollywood activists’ access to the “profitable and pervasive” “celebrity media” to that of a “Leni Riefenstahl Third Reich propaganda proposition, where what they say and do is put in everybody’s face.”
The mainstream media accept much of this critique. The constant refrain that Hollywood is “out of touch” and filled with “political dilettantes” is offered as evidence of the illegitimacy of Hollywood’s political participation in a way one never hears about, say, Wall Street, Grosse Pointe or even Silicon Valley. Almost uniquely among the tiny percentage of Americans who do contribute large amounts of money to political campaigns–the number who give a thousand dollars or more to any candidate hovers around one tenth of 1 percent of the population, according to Public Campaign’s Micah Sifry–Hollywood’s contributions do not buy the giver anything concrete like a tax break or a regulation relaxation. While the entertainment industry does have corporate PACs, who do the business’s bidding and spread their wealth accordingly, most of the money handed out by the entertainment industry is ideological money and buys its giver nothing.
In reporting on the power of political contributions before the election, Business Week, for instance, explained that Hollywood environmental activist Laurie David was seeking “tougher anti-pollution laws if Kerry wins in November” while Wall Street would be “lobby[ing] for new retirement savings plans if Bush triumphs.” The article concluded: “In any case, the special interests can be expected to call in their chits one way or the other.” Excuse me, but how is it that the term “special interest” came to be applied without distinction to both a lobbyist seeking to improve the quality of air and water for an entire planet and wealthy firms seeking a government retirement plan designed to line their own pockets? As David fairly complains, it is ridiculous to compare “a corporate CEO trying to evade paying for pollution controls with someone raising money to hope for an administration that will try and keep mercury out of the air so small children don’t get brain damage.”
While there are undoubtedly social and professional benefits in Hollywood that derive from giving money to liberal causes, rich liberals get nothing from the national treasury or tax code for their activism. A March 2004 report by Public Citizen found that of the 416 Bush campaign “Rangers” and “Pioneers”–donors who had raised $200,000 and $100,000 respectively–90 percent represented the special interests of America’s most powerful corporations. The top six, CEOs all, enjoyed an average bonus of $270,000 each last year, merely on the basis of their personal tax reductions, according to analysis by Campaign Money Watch.
Paul Begala recalls that during all his time in the White House, meeting with hundreds if not thousands of powerful contributors, “Ninety-nine point five percent of them were asking me for something designed to put money in their own pockets. Hollywood people were the only big givers who never asked for anything but that we try to make America a better country as they saw it.” Indeed, billionaire entertainment mogul David Geffen raised in the neighborhood of $20 million for the President and his party during the Clinton years, perhaps as much as anyone in the United States. He threw large fundraisers at his house and small, billionaire-only dinner parties, where he would provide entrée to Clinton for various entertainment moguls and then hit them up for contributions. According to biographer Tom King, two such dinners totaling just twenty-four guests raised a total of $2 million. But instead of seeking special favors from the President, they actually lobbied him not to give them any. There was one night at Geffen’s Malibu beach house, one knowledgeable source informs me, when Geffen brought nine or ten of these guys together and told the President not to cut the capital gains tax. “We’ve already got enough. We don’t need this, too.” Clinton gave it to them anyway.
Of course, Hollywood celebrities bear some of the responsibility for their bad press. While many Hollywood personalities are dead serious about their politics and contribute their money and celebrity intelligently and strategically, more than a few really are just as spoiled media-wise as they are life-wise, expecting the same supplication from reporters as from their personal publicists, agents, managers, masseuses, life coaches, gardeners, pool attendants and pedicurists. But media machers would have a far stronger case for complaint about the role Hollywood plays in our politics if the very same media outlets weren’t begging for each star’s latest pronouncement. As the Irish actor Daniel Day-Lewis notes, “The media are sick and tired of people in my profession giving their opinion, and yet you’re asking me my opinion. And when I give it, you’ll say, ‘Why doesn’t he shut up?'” Norman Lear, founder of People for the American Way and funder of countless liberal causes and candidates, grows furious in describing the hypocrisy of the media he finds himself forced to exploit to win coverage of crucial issues with celebrity appearances: “Us, People, E, Inside Story didn’t come from the grassroots. Establishment America has seen to it that young nubile women can sell everything from dental floss, to a car, to a condom…. We make this culture to mock it.”