Hollywood Babbling On

Michael Abernethy

Naturally, Kerry will be judged by the company he keeps, but it's not like he is consorting with Satan Worshippers or Neo-Nazis.

"'My country, right or wrong' is a thing no patriot would think of saying. It's like saying, 'My mother, drunk or sober.'"
-- Gilbert Chesterton

When doctored photographs of John Kerry and Jane Fonda speaking together at an anti-war rally in the early '70s began to make their way around the internet recently, the altered images reopened old wounds. Conservative websites and blogs again called for Fonda to be put on trial for treason, and many vets devoted pages explaining why Fonda should remain a social pariah. Because of her support of the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War and her visit to the Communist country in 1972, Fonda has been carrying the label of "Hanoi Jane" for over thirty years, and political opponents of Kerry who created the forged photo believe that one of the most damaging things they can do to the Presidential candidate is to link him to the actress they still consider a traitor.

In order to vilify her, Fonda's detractors overlook her numerous accomplishments as an actress, her role in rejuvenating America's interest in exercise and healthy living, and her success as a corporate leader and business maven. Without engaging in a debate on the correctness of Fonda's wartime actions, it should be noted that the born-again Fonda has apologized for many of her actions, referring to some past deeds as "cruel and thoughtless." Forgiveness doesn't seem to be an option for many who resent her past.

As the presidential race continues to remain tight, we are likely to see even more entertainers, authors, and sports stars come out in favor of one or the other candidate, despite the overwhelming evidence showing that celebrity endorsements have little effect on voter decisions. In fact, some Americans are so revolted by this revived celebrity activism that they have formed groups to oppose the stars; one such group, Citizens Against Celebrity Pundits, is calling on candidates to rebuke celebrity endorsements.

Considering the tenuous relationship that has traditionally existed between Hollywood and Washington, it is not surprising that many conservatives and a few liberals in the capital are voicing displeasure with the stumping done by these novice politicians. The Hollywood community has been blamed for almost all of society's ills by various Congressional committees or Administration officials: violence, infidelity, Communism, moral decay, drug abuse, and school shootings. Such a long history of animosity would not naturally lead to the collaboration we have witnessed between the two communities in recent years. Regardless of one's stand on this new union, it is undeniable that Hollywood (i.e. the entertainment media in general) plays a valuable role in the American political process, serving as the sole source of information many voters have regarding important issues and drawing attention to both candidates and issues.

Unless the Democrats flood into Kentucky, it's a safe assumption that Bush will win the vote there this November. Consequently, the candidates' tour busses always seem to swerve around my home state. We aren't bothered with those pesky campaign ads from the two nominees or the controversial issue ads from groups such as MoveOn or Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. To be honest, I've learned more about the candidate's positions from the celebrity guests on Real Time with Bill Maher than I've learned from either of the candidates. While much of the discussion of contemporary issues comes in the form of humor on shows such as The Daily Show and late-night talk shows, it nevertheless informs the electorate on the major campaign points; the continued popularity of these shows therefore make them major players during campaign seasons.

The role of the entertainment industry in the political process dates back far before this election cycle. During World War Two, Hollywood was the government's greatest propaganda tool, informing the masses about the various battles overseas and highlighting the sacrifices every day citizens were making for the war effort. In addition to glorifying American war efforts, the film community also sought to vilify the enemy through such films as Disney's Oscar-winning short, Der Fuhrer's Face. Hollywood took on this role again after September 11th. In fact, executives of all the major studios, media conglomerates, film labor unions and television networks met with Presidential advisor Karl Rove two months after the tragedy to discuss how they could assist the President in his war on terrorism.

Nonetheless, it is the adversarial relationship between Hollywood and Washington that is best known. From the government's backing in the '30s for the Hayes Code, which set standards regarding indecent content in films, to the Hollywood Blacklists of the '50s and Richard Nixon's famed "Hate List" in the '70s, Washington and Hollywood have found a lot to fight about over the last century. When not targeting the industry as a whole, politicians have often focused their attention on singular aspects of it. This was certainly the case with Vice-President Spiro Agnew's attack on television news, a political strategy that is largely responsible for the fallacious belief of a liberal bias to the media. And one could also point to Vice President Quayle's battle with the '80s sitcom Murphy Brown, in which he lambasted the character's single parenthood.

The current resurgence of ill-will towards the Hollywood community began with the world-wide protests against the Iraq war, but has been fueled by the now-legendary fund-raiser held in honor of John Kerry. During the 8 July 2004 event, celebrity guests took frequent, often harsh or crude stabs at the current President. While many objected to the comments, it was a statement by candidate Kerry that caught the Republican spin machine's attention. After the performances, Kerry said that the performers reflected the values of the heart and soul of America; days later, in a speech in Marquette, Michigan, Bush reported to his audience that Kerry said the performers were the heart and soul of America, a substantially different statement. While the misquote may have been unintentional, the damage was done, as conservative columnists and news organizations had the perfect spin and headline to portray Kerry as out of touch with the average American. Again, Kerry was to be damned by his association with those out of control Hollywood liberals.

Naturally, Kerry will be judged by the company he keeps, but it's not like he is consorting with Satan Worshippers or Neo-Nazis. Those who are being criticized, such as Sarandon and Goldberg, are not voicing extreme or violent ideas; what they are saying can be heard in barbershops, bars, and classrooms all over this country. The fact that some of those speaking out have achieved success in other fields does not exclude them from having the right to express all their views.

Nor does it make them unqualified to express those views, an argument many put forth to discredit the public statements of activist celebrities. An editorial in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette referred to them as "Beverly Hills bubble-heads", (Robin Pencock, "Hooray for Hollywood; Boo its Political Input," 3 August 2004 page #s not needed.) while the Atlanta Journal-Constitution pondered, "Warren Buffett is an expert on investments, Tiger Woods on fairway irons. But on politics? Please." (Bradley R. Gitz, "Kerry's Hollywood Values", 22 July 2004However, to follow the chain of logic asserted here, a garbage man should only be allowed to publicly discuss garbage, a teacher only education, a journalist only the art of writing and fact reporting, and so on. None of us is defined by our occupations, and what we chose to do for a living doesn't restrict the other areas of knowledge or interests we can pursue.

As troubling as the lack of logic in the arguments against celebrity activism is the hypocrisy behind those arguments. Both parties court celebrities, and both trot them out during the campaigns. On 29 August 2004, the Republicans announced their arrival in New York for their convention with "The R Party", hosted by Jenna and Barbara Bush. Among those scheduled to attend were Bo Derek, the Gatlin Brothers, wrestler Rick Flair, Angie Harmon and Jason Sehorn, and Stephen Baldwin. Although not on the guest list for "The R Party", celebs Ricky Schroeder, Shannon Doherty, Tom Clancy, Gerald McRaney, Charlton Heston, Patricia Heaton, and Ron Silver have all spoken out in favor of conservative causes or voiced their support of the President. In response, the White House has embraced these celebrities; for instance, President Bush has referred to conservative activist Charlton Heston as a "patriot", while the Republican National Convention trotted out celebs Ron Silver, Angie Harmon, Lynn Swann, Jason Sehorn, and Dorothy Hamill to the podium. Apparently, those celebrities who agree with the President's positions have the right to speak out publicly; it is only liberals who need to shut the hell up. While the list of celebrities lining up in favor of Bush is not as long as that lining up against him, it is clear that conservative values do indeed exist in Hollywood and have a voice.

Such a voice, in fact, that many espousing those conservative beliefs have parlayed their fame into political fortune. Governor Schwarzenegger and President Reagan are the most well known celebrities to hold political office, but they are far from being the only ones. Over the last fifty years, Republican celebrities have held political office on all levels of government; among them are entertainers George Murphy, Claire Booth Luce, and Fred Thompson (U. S. Senate), Fred Grandy and Sonny Bono (U. S. House), Shirley Temple Black (Ambassador), and Alan Autrey (Mayor). Athlete politicians include Senator Jim Bunning and current or former Representatives Jack Kemp, Steve Largent, Tom Osborne, Jim Ryun, and J. C. Watts. If these entertainers are competent enough to serve in office, why are others labeled too incompetent to hold a valid opinion?

The current administration's history with the Hollywood community is not as stand-offish as the electorate has been led to believe. Not only did Bush forget to mention the meeting between Rove and Hollywood executives in his criticism of the Kerry fund-raiser, he forgot to mention that during the '80s he had served for a decade on the board of film production company Silver Screen Management. Indeed, Bush worked for the very people he claims are out of touch with American values.

While Bush and his representatives play down his Hollywood connection, they still welcome support from certain corners of the entertainment community. They, like the Kerry campaign, know that celebrity endorsements have certain advantages, even if they don't translate into actual votes. Tom Maurstad of The Dallas Morning News identified three plusses: money, attention, and hip-ness ("From Hollywood to Washington", 5 February 1994) The greatest of these three would clearly be money, in that celebrities are the pull that attracts voters to fundraising events. As controversial as they can be, Teresa Heinz Kerry or Dick Cheney are still not as big a draw as Barbara Streisand or Toby Keith. (One could argue that Bush's fundraisers featuring corporate CEOs and business VIPs are simply a variation of the celebrity fundraiser, attracting business types to meet their corporate idols.) The better a fundraiser's attendance, the more media attention it will get, and the more celebrities present, the more likely the event will be covered by nontraditional news sources, such as Entertainment Tonight.

Celebrity editorializing isn't going to go away, nor should it. It's the responsibility of the public to sort through all of the snippets of information they are being fed. Clearly, much of what one hears regarding candidates is intended as humor, and certainly some of it crosses the line of good taste. But are Whoopi Goldberg's off-color jokes about Bush's name any more offensive than Senator Bunning's "joke" that his senatorial opponent looked like one of Saddam Hussein's dead sons? (Dr. Daniel Mongiardo, Bunning's opponent, is of Italian descent.) Along those lines, is Natalie Maines' assertion that she is embarrassed that the President is from Texas any more boorish than the bumper sticker exclaiming, "John Kerry is Osama bin-Laden's man; George W. Bush is mine"? None of these comments served any purpose other than to amuse an audience already converted.

When formulating cogent and tactful discourse on important issues, celebrities deserve to be heard and to have their words weighed thoughtfully, not because they are celebrities, but because they are American citizens seeking to get involved in the democratic process. With voter turn-out on a perpetual downward slide and more Americans expressing disgust with the political games that dominate contemporary campaigns, why would anyone intentionally discourage debate that informs the electorate? Of course celebrities will say things that are inappropriate; so will candidates, pundits, and everyday citizens. It is the pitfall of anyone who is passionate about what they believe: not allowing the brain to edit what the heart wants to say. But refusing to hear the words of all celebrities because one disagrees with the views of a few is foolishness, and barring public figures from expressing their political views is countermand to the principles of democracy that anti-Hollywood patriots claim to embody. We should treat the words of celebrity activists with the same level of respect and skepticism that we would treat the speeches of the candidates or the railings of our neighbors; consider that which is valid and discard that which is tripe.

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