Pedro Mencari Napoleon
Beware of Celebrities Bearing Gifts
By KATE ZERNIKE
FOR presidential hopefuls, the Hollywood fund-raiser used to be as smooth as an A.T.M. withdrawal: duck in at night, after the East Coast news cycles have closed. Leave in the morning with a hefty check and the soft reflected glow of a few Oscar winners.
The events did not, typically, result in headlines about the “brawl,” “throwdown,” or “rumble in the Hollywood jungle” that greeted Barack Obama’s first foray onto the scene last week.
You can’t begrudge the movie-loving public a great story line. David Geffen, an entertainment industry billionaire power broker and onetime cheerleader for Bill Clinton, not only herds big Hollywood names to a hot-ticket fund-raiser for Mr. Obama, but insults Hillary Rodham Clinton and the former president on the eve of the party. And, as though they were obliging the celebrity tabloids, the Clinton and Obama campaigns jump in the mud right after him.
It was not a happy ending for anyone. Mr. Obama’s reputation for being above politics was soiled. And Mrs. Clinton came off as quick to fight.
But, really, can anyone be surprised? Given the well-known potential downside, presidential candidates might be expected to treat Hollywood stars the way studios now treat Tom Cruise — with a bit more distance.
But for candidates, especially those competing for the Democratic nomination, Hollywood is too important to put at arm’s length.
There is the deep pockets factor. But there is another key consideration: There is no better place than Hollywood to attain that magical aura of Superstardom. Hollywood money helps encourage other sources of money, which leads to bigger campaign chests, which leads to an aura that the candidate is invincible.
The only problem: keeping big, independent-minded personalities like Mr. Geffen from putting a rip in that superstar image.
Ten years ago, the Hollywood Women’s Political Committee disbanded. The members said they were tired of being treated like cash machines and were enraged at how much money had corrupted the political process.
That group may be no more, but the Hollywood cash dance lives on. In fact, celebrities now pay political consultants to advise them on candidates.
In 2004, John Kerry took in $3.5 million from people identifying themselves as in television, movies or music, up from the $1 million that Al Gore took in when he was the Democratic nominee in 2000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. While Republicans have traditionally done worse in Hollywood, President Bush also earned more from those donors in 2004 than he did in 2000 — $1.4 million up from about $830,000.
That money becomes a kind of early election return. “There are all sorts of invisible primaries going on here,” said Stuart Stevens, a Republican consultant working for John McCain who has also been a producer and writer for television. “One of them is for money, and one of them is for inevitability. Hillary Clinton wants to be inevitable.”
A high-profile fund-raising event for Mr. Obama seriously dents that aura of invincibility.
“This hurts her in the money primary and in the inevitability primary,” said Mr. Stevens of Mr. Obama’s reception. “The fact that they’re in love with her husband and not doing it for her is not a good sign. It gives other people permission to do the same — Wall Streeters, hedge-fund types. They figure, if the hip, cool people aren’t doing it, I don’t have to do it.”
Indeed, some believe the support for Senator Obama is probably not deep, wide or even informed.
“A lot of these Hollywood donors are measuring prospects for box office success, if you will,” said Eli Attie, a former chief speechwriter for Mr. Gore who was also a writer and producer on “The West Wing.” “It’s not that they know Obama’s record or know what he’d do as president or think he’d be better or smarter than Hillary Clinton. It’s more that he seems like he could be a tough contender. ”
Outside the Hollywood bubble, however, this conceit — that money and celebrity may be enough to crown The Nominee — can seem like, well, a conceit.
“The voters almost feel like they have a duty to reject that kind of endorsement,” said Art Torres, the chairman of the California Democratic Party and a former state senator. “They’re thinking, ‘What do I care what that movie star thinks?’ I’m going to make up my own mind.”
A CBS News poll taken this month before the Geffen remarks found the public evenly split on the question of whether celebrities should get involved in politics: 48 percent said they should stay out; 47 percent said they should get involved.
“One of the problems Democrats have had,” said Mr. Stevens, the Republican consultant, “is not being able to manage this.”
In 2004, the Democratic Party sent celebrities to swing states like Ohio to canvass voters. “People in Ohio, just like people in New Jersey, don’t want somebody from California to come tell them how to vote — ‘I’m here to save you,’ ” said Mr. Attie. “It has a negative missionary arrogance.”
Of course, some stars do add some measure of credibility. Celebrities like Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington are considered all-American enough to help any candidate.
Other stars realize that they have limitations.
“George Clooney, you don’t ever see him hit a wrong note,” Mr. Stevens says. “He understands he can help raise money, but he also understands there’s a line to cross where he’s not going to be telling people how to vote.”
Then again, some stars get involved unwillingly. Stephen Rivers, who has worked for politically active stars including Jane Fonda, recalled the 1988 Senate campaign in New Jersey, where the Republican, Pete Dawkins, was under fire for exaggerating his war record, and successfully changed the topic by invoking Ms. Fonda as the ultimate liberal antiwar bogeywoman. Mr. Dawkins’ campaign demanded that the Democrat, Frank Lautenberg, return $5,000 from a women’s group in Hollywood that the Republicans insisted was “controlled” by Ms. Fonda. Soon, Republicans warned, Mr. Lautenberg would be taking foreign policy advice from the woman whom some on the right deride as Hanoi Jane.
Not that it worked. Mr. Dawkins lost.
In any case, celebrities may not care much about their affect on a politician’s future. They may just want to act altruistically. Or, like so many donors everywhere, it might be all about them.
“People want to say, ‘Oh, just because they have all this money, who are they to act like they know what they’re talking about,’ ” said Ken Sunshine, a public relations consultant who has represented Ms. Streisand and Leonardo DiCaprio.
“But they have rights, like any citizen, to speak their minds.”