The Bully Pulpit
A few weeks before the midterm elections, South Carolina‘s Democratic senatorial candidate Alex Sanders crowed, ”The Sundance Kid’s coming to town.“ And there was Robert Redford, shaking hands and talking politics in front of a wall-size painting depicting the final bullet-riddled scene of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Before an audience packed with women, Redford, even at 65, pulled in about $300,000 at two separate Sanders fund-raisers -- quite a haul. Private lunch with Redford was $10,000 a plate; just hearing Redford‘s five-minute stump speech went for $1,000. (By contrast, Republican opponent Lindsay Graham’s campaign lunch with Vice President Dick Cheney cost $250.) Little wonder that Sanders thanked his Hollywood supporter for ”bringing the only thing this campaign lacked: celebrity and total excitement.“
Graham was indignant about Redford (even though Graham himself had trotted out NASCAR native son Cale Yarborough for celebrity wattage). A Graham spokesman complained to the local press that Redford has been deeply critical of the president and represents ”Hollywood money and liberal politics. Mr. Redford‘s a very good actor. He makes movies that many of us enjoy, but his politics are out of touch with South Carolina.“
Besides support for 20-some House members, Redford, during this election cycle, also hosted fund-raisers for Colorado’s Tom Strickland, a moderate Democrat locked in a neck-and-neck race with incumbent Republican and rabid right-winger Wayne Allard. (Interestingly, no one from the Strickland campaign challenged Charlton Heston, the National Rifle Association president, who was met by a cheering standing-room-only crowd in Denver and pumped his right fist in the air to urge Allard supporters to ”Vote Freedom First.“) Allard deputy campaign manager John Swartout dismissed Redford‘s influence: ”We all know Colorado needs a senator who represents Colorado, and not Hollywood.“
Redford wasn’t alone. When Rob Reiner‘s new national advocacy group, Every Child Matters, attacked Allard for casting the lone Senate vote against a program to prevent, detect and treat babies for fetal alcohol syndrome, Allard’s campaign manager lashed out that Reiner‘s ”organization is largely financed by a filthy-rich Hollywood liberal who wants to impose extremist values on Colorado.“
Both Sanders and Strickland lost, victims of a better-financed and better-organized GOP. For the first time in recent memory, Democratic candidates in state after state who accepted even one check from the likes of Barbra Streisand, or one stump speech from Alec Baldwin and his ilk, were often heckled, sometimes humiliated, and at the very least put on the hot seat for being ”too Hollywood,“ the favorite taunt and pejorative taint of conservatives in today’s parlance of Limbaugh-O‘Reilly-North-Hannity TV and radio talk folks.
It’s not that this is anything new: Opponents of the views of Hollywood‘s outspoken liberal celebrities have been trying to silence them since the ’60s. What‘s novel is that this effort is now so concerted by conservatives. With Republicans in control of the two major branches of government (maybe even all three, given the current makeup of the Supreme Court), Democrats don’t have a bully pulpit. And Hollywood is being bullied to keep quiet. That can be directly attributed to right-wing fears about the new federal campaign-finance laws. Actor activists can direct the equivalent of millions of dollars‘ worth of ”soft money“ publicity to the candidates of their choice just by showing up at a rally. Then there’s their money-raising prowess: The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee made $6 million at a Hollywood gala headlined by Barbra Streisand on September 29, while Vice President Dick Cheney collected $5 million on October 2 for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Both Barbra and Baldwin were like bull‘s-eyes at target practice, Streisand because of her nationwide donations to Democratic candidates, and Baldwin because of his work with the liberal political groups People for the American Way and the Creative Coalition. In New York, a Republican congressional candidate, Marilyn O’Grady, made a negative TV ad titled ”Baghdad Babs“ excoriating her Democratic opponent, incumbent Carolyn McCarthy, for accepting a campaign contribution from Streisand and failing to criticize the actress for recent verbal assaults on Bush. ”Maybe that‘s the way things look out in Hollywood, but back here in Long Island we support our president,“ O’Grady said. In that race, voters still went for Democrat McCarthy. As for Baldwin, he was dogged at many campaign stops by Republican protesters handing out fake airline tickets -- a reference to his once saying in jest that if George W. won the 2000 election, it ”might be a good time to leave the country.“ In Florida, no less than Jeb Bush teased Baldwin about the remark when the actor came to Tallahassee to lobby politically.
In New Hampshire, the campaign of successful Republican senatorial candidate John E. Sununu lauded itself for ”working for the agenda of President Bush, not for the agenda of Tom Daschle or Ted Kennedy or even Barbra Streisand.“ In Missouri, Jean Carnahan, the Democratic loser, was chastised for receiving money from big labor, feminist groups, Hollywood and trial lawyers, in that order. In the Michigan governor‘s race, Republican Dick Posthumus unsuccessfully sought to exploit opponent Jennifer Granholm’s background -- she tried acting after high school, then went on to college and law school -- with a three-word slogan: ”Hollywood, Berkeley, Harvard.“ In a Virginia congressional race, ex--Dukes of Hazzard actor Ben ”Cooter“ Jones lost after being branded for ”talking Southern but voting Hollywood.“ In Ohio, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tim Hagan, married to Star Trek: Voyager actress Kate Mulgrew, was targeted in a fund-raising letter for benefiting ”from friends in the Kennedy family and his connections to Hollywood.“ He lost at the polls.
Not only did Republicans try to demonstrate to Democrats that Hollywood liberalism was a liability, but they now want to instill fear in actor activists as well. In a USA Today rant headlined ”Stars Risk Popularity for Politics,“ right-wing radio talk-show host (and second-rate film critic) Michael Medved issued what can only be called a not-so-veiled threat one day after the midterm elections: ”Leaders of the Hollywood left may console themselves with the thought that their previous partisanship did no lasting damage to their careers, but a few exceptions to that rule ought to give them pause. Oliver Stone and Alec Baldwin, for instance, have definitely lost some of the clout and popularity they once enjoyed, thanks to a series of personal embarrassments, including arguably their strident and predictable political radicalism. The recent ratings collapse of NBC‘s acclaimed program The West Wing . . . obviously coincides with the edgy insistent anti-war activism of the show’s star Martin Sheen.“
What crap. Any Hollywood insider knows that both Stone‘s and Baldwin’s careers collapsed because of too many bad movies and too much arrogant behavior. And that West Wing‘s problem has been second-rate scripts, not Sheen. (Medved also loses credibility by decrying Hollywood’s R-rated movies yet embracing Arnold Schwarzenegger, who‘s been responsible for 500-some onscreen deaths.) Warren Beatty, who’s in more career trouble than anyone in Hollywood (all of it his own making), told The New York Times during this election, ”I have found I need to be much more careful of what I say because when those opinions go against the grain, then one is subjected to all kinds of ad hominem attacks.“ And Hollywood Democrat Richard Dreyfuss made the surprising confession to the Washington Post that he didn‘t vote in this midterm election. ”I got my absentee ballot and I tore it up. That was my vote.“
How sad if this new outside pressure means Hollywood’s political stars now start censoring or disenfranchising themselves. Because the only way to beat a bully is not to back down.