To most Americans, Hollywood activism consists of self-obsessed movie stars promoting their pet causes, whether defending marijuana legalization or Second Amendment rights. There's some truth in that stereotype, and in this book you'll find the close personal friends of Fidel Castro, the wannabe cowboys, and the ever-ubiquitous Barbra Streisand. But Citizen Hollywood makes a far more serious case--that Hollywood's influence in Washington runs deeper and affects the country's government more than most of us imagine.
Celebrity activism exerts a subtle power over the American political process, and that pressure is nothing new. Through money, networking, and image making, the movie industry has shaped the way that politics works for nearly a century. It has helped to forge a culture that is obsessed with celebrity and spectacle.
In return, politicians have become part of the fabric of Hollywood society and cater to the wishes of their new-found friends and fund-raisers.
Using original archival research and exclusive interviews with stars, directors, producers, and politicians from both parties, Timothy Stanley's Citizen Hollywood shows that the only way to understand the image-obsessed, volatile politics of modern America is to understand the hidden history of Hollywood's influence on Washington.
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About the Author
Timothy Stanley is a historian of the United States at Oxford University. He blogs on American politics for the London Daily Telegraph and has written for The Atlantic, Dissent, and National Review. He is co-author of The End of Politics: Triangulation, Realignment, and the Battle for the Center Ground and co-editor of Making Change Happen: Twentieth Century Liberal Reformism in America.
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How the Collaboration Between LA and DC Revolutionized American Politics
By Timothy Stanley
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2014 Timothy Stanley
All rights reserved.
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES
How Hollywood Helped Reelect Obama
Barack Obama's 2012 reelection campaign was a perfect example of how Hollywood can promote, finance, and even define a modern political candidate.
After the battle of 2012 had been lost and won, the journalist Michael Scherer wrote a piece for Time magazine that lifted the lid on the president's fund-raising strategy. Team Obama credited part of their success to Hollywood. Scherer wrote:
In late spring, the backroom number crunchers who powered Barack Obama's campaign to victory noticed that George Clooney had an almost gravitational tug on West Coast females ages 40 to 49. The women were far and away the single demographic group most likely to hand over cash, for a chance to dine in Hollywood with Clooney — and Obama. So as they did with all the other data collected, stored and analyzed in the two-year drive for re-election, Obama's top campaign aides decided to put this insight to use. They sought out an East Coast celebrity who had similar appeal among the same demographic, aiming to replicate the millions of dollars produced by the Clooney contest.
The number crunchers settled on Sarah Jessica Parker, the actress who played Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City.
Team Obama invited ordinary members of the public to donate money for a chance to win a seat at a fund-raising dinner at Parker's brownstone in New York City's West Village. Conservatives, when they heard of the idea, thought it would bomb; surely the contest would be a tough sell to a country going through a recession. Sarah Jessica Parker had played a character who was proud of having spent forty thousand dollars on shoes. And the ad cut for the campaign was fronted by Anna Wintour, the editor in chief of Vogue who almost prides herself on being unlikable. Her designer labels and power hairdo were a far cry from Middle American tastes, while her strange, wandering accent accentuated her elitism. "I'm soooo luck-ee in my work," she purred, "that I'm able to meet some of the most incredible women in the world. Women like Sarah Jessica Parker and Michelle Obama." Was Sarah Jessica Parker really one "of the most incredible women in the world"? And was the unemployed mother of four watching the ad from her soon-to-be-repossessed home supposed to be thrilled by Wintour's good luck in knowing her? Anna thought so: "These two wonderful women and I are hoosting [sic] a dinner along with the president in New York City to benefit the Obama campaign. We're saving the best two seats in the house ... for you!"
After laying out the rules of the competition, Wintour glared out from under her heavy red fringe and said, "Please join us. Just don't be late." It sounded a little like a threat.
"She's not saving the two best seats!" laughed the conservative pundit Glenn Beck on his TV show. "Do you really think Anna Wintour is going to be taking the crappy seats?" Beck pointed out that not only were Parker and Wintour part of the Hollywood aristocracy, but Wintour was also well-known as a boss from hell. A movie had even been made about it, called The Devil Wears Prada. "She was the person who actually was in the movie treating all of her coworkers, her underlings, like garbage, waiting on her every whim," said Beck. "She is — she is — what [Barack Obama] says capitalists are like all the time. She is everything she says the Republicans are, and she's an Obama supporter!"
Like many of us writing and talking about the election, Beck wrote off the Wintour ad as a terrible mistake — something that would hurt Obama in November. But he was wrong. Thousands entered the contest, and famous attendees — including Meryl Streep and Aretha Franklin — forked out forty thousand dollars per head to meet the president. The fund-raiser was a success, and Obama's numbers didn't slip from all the publicity. The contest worked as an idea because it wasn't just a lazy stunt (find a Hollywood host, throw together an ad, and try to squeeze money out of people). On the contrary: It was a carefully designed example of Team Obama's "data mining" — statistical analyses of who gives how much to whom and why. The wonks worked out that many female voters like contests, like small dinners, and whatever Glenn Beck might think, they do like Sarah Jessica Parker and Anna Wintour. One person's rich bitch was another person's style icon.
This one story says a lot about how Hollywood helped Obama in 2012. First, it raised him a lot of money. Nothing surprising in that: The moviemakers have always been generous to Democrats. Second, Hollywood helped bolster Obama's image among certain key groups of voters, something that was unusual. In many previous presidential cycles the Democrats had, overall, been hurt by their association with the cosmopolitan, left-wing darlings of Los Angeles. But in 2012, Hollywood's brand of social liberalism caught the zeitgeist rather well — particularly among the young, and especially among women. Harnessing that social liberalism helped Obama keep his desk in the White House in spite of high unemployment. On Election Day he lost the male vote narrowly but won the female vote by a mile — the vote that the Parker and Wintour ad was designed to impress. Hollywood helped Obama to focus the election on the cultural issues that he knew he could win on, attracting to his ticket millions of voters who were alienated by Mitt Romney's social conservatism.
Team Obama understood that, and that's why they made such a big effort to win over the moviemakers. But before they could be put to work for Obama, the Hollywood elite first had to be wooed. And that was harder to do than you might think.
In 2011, Obama's relations with Hollywood hit an all-time low. Enthusiasm was down and donations were drying up. When he toured the movie industry in 2008, Obama had been invited to the homes of the rich and famous and treated like the second coming of Elvis Presley. But when he visited in September 2011 he was reduced to appearing at the sweaty House of Blues on Sunset Strip. The host was a TV sitcom actor and the entertainment was the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles; tickets went for as little as $250. There was dinner afterward at the Fig & Olive restaurant with Jeffrey Katzenberg, where a chance to chow with the commander in chief went for $35,800. But tickets were still available online hours before the event. One political consultant said that the day's fund-raising drive had been "tough, tough, tough."
The problem was partly philosophical. Obama hadn't lived up to the superhero narrative that Hollywood wrote for him in 2008. While the Tea Party fumed that he was too liberal, the moviemakers insisted that he wasn't liberal enough — that he had wasted a unique opportunity to transform America into something more caring and democratic. In an interview in March 2011, Matt Damon told Piers Morgan that he was particularly upset about the lack of education reform. When asked by Morgan if he approved of the way that Obama was running the country in general, Damon replied, "No ... I really think he misinterpreted his mandate. A friend of mine said to me the other day, which I thought was a great line, 'I no longer hope for audacity.'" Obama, to his credit, gave as good as he got. At the White House Correspondent's Ball, he told the audience, "I've even let down my key core constituency: movie stars. Just the other day, Matt Damon ... said he was disappointed in my performance. Well, Matt, I just saw The Adjustment Bureau — so right back atcha, buddy."
Nevertheless, "I no longer hope for audacity" was a great line, and it became shorthand for Hollywood's disappointment. A lot of the anger came from older, more politically radical celebrities. Hugh Hefner wanted troops out of Afghanistan ("We are going through the same thing as Vietnam right now"). Robert Redford said Obama had a "failed energy policy." The most common complaint, though, was inaction on gay rights. Barbra Streisand couldn't understand why the president didn't use his executive privilege to get rid of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on homosexuality. Jane Lynch, an openly gay actor and one of the stars of the TV series Glee, called him a "huge disappointment" on gay marriage: "We thought the great hope of Obama was going to magically change all that. He's just nicely walking the middle."
Why didn't Hollywood mind so much when Bill Clinton "walked the middle" in the 1990s? The answer was personality. President Clinton might have been the consummate centrist who reformed welfare and went to war in the Balkans, but he loved the attention of stars and tried his best to be nice to them. Obama was a very different story.
Hollywood was stunned that Obama never called to say thank you the morning after the 2008 election. In select speeches he did acknowledge what the town had done for him, but he failed to send personal thank-you notes or maintain a dialogue with the big players. Maureen Dowd in The New York Times put this down to his unusual political background:
Obama smashed through all the barriers and dysfunction in his life to become a self-made, self-narrating president. His brash 2008 campaign invented a new blueprint to upend the Democratic establishment. So it's understandable if Obama, with his Shaker aesthetic, is not inclined to play by the rococo rules of politics.
Searching for a good simile, Dowd compared the prez to Paul Newman, an actor known for scorning Hollywood's social circuit.
"I've been accused of being aloof," Newman told me. "I'm not. I'm just wary. ... With film critics and fans, you have to be selectively insensitive to their insensitivities. ... If people start treating you like a piece of meat or a long-lost friend or feel they can become cuddly for the price of a $5 movie ticket, then you shut them out."
The comparison struck a chord: producer Harvey Weinstein also called Obama "The Paul Newman of American politics." All those Paul Newman references were classic Hollywood — the industry is so self-obsessed that it can only understand the behavior of presidents by comparing them to film stars. But the allusion also reflects the importance of manners in the movie business. Hollywood is a place where everybody is usually very nice to everyone else — whatever their social status — either in deference to their fame or in the hope that someday they might make it and remember you (that's why waiters' tips are so generous in Los Angeles). So Obama's distance made no sense to people who had built careers on gregarious charm. Never mind that the charm could be two-faced (as Paul Newman feared) or that the president had better things to do than call Robert Redford and beg his advice on solar energy. In Hollywood, everyone is grateful for anything and everything, and they are very loud about it. That's the rule.
Obama broke that rule all the time: just ask Oprah Winfrey.
The talk show queen worked hard for Obama in 2008, and she enjoyed a remarkable degree of access. Journalist Ed Klein wrote, "When she phoned, he dropped everything and took her call. They huddled over strategy. Of all of Obama's unofficial White House advisers, Oprah had unparalleled access, input, influence, and power." Team Obama figured that she was worth it: One study calculated that her endorsement was worth one million votes in the general election.
But when Obama evolved from candidate to president, things changed. His staff wanted to control access to their boss. After all, what was the point of being the president's gatekeeper if some talk show host could just pick up the phone and get straight through to him? Oprah discovered the shift in attitude when she put in a request to interview Obama. Her calls to Michelle went unanswered, and when the administration finally got back to her, she found that she had to do an interview prep with White House staff. An executive within her studios told Klein, "It was a pain as far as Oprah was concerned. Oprah isn't a snob, but she doesn't like having to put up with mid-level clerks. These guys were $75,000-a-year men. Oprah was like, 'Hello, what is this s–t!'"
It sounds a little snobby to those of us on middle-class salaries. Nevertheless, Oprah decided to go ahead with her interview. But when she turned up at the White House, she was confronted with the greatest horror of all: Oprah Winfrey was treated like an ordinary person. Klein:
When they arrived, Oprah and [her producer] Gayle weren't [welcomed] like VIPs; they were made to wait at the security gate like ordinary visitors. Once inside, they had to cool their heels for a long time before they were shown up to the Yellow Oval Room in the family residence, where Michelle finally made an appearance.
To make matters worse, Michelle boasted about having a big staff ("as if Oprah wouldn't know about that"). And — prepare yourself for a shock:
Michelle mentioned that the White House cooks made the best pie in the world. But she didn't offer Oprah or Gayle any.
The Obamas actually come across rather well in Klein's account. Obama is too busy running the world to entertain TV stars, and Michelle is delightfully giddy about her sudden elevation: She's a working-class girl made good. But the Oprah fiasco also underscores how un-Hollywood they were in both priorities and manners. If Obama had been unabashedly liberal and pursued the stars' pet causes, they'd have forgiven his distance. If he had been charming and approachable, they'd have forgiven his centrism. But the president let down Hollywood on both counts. So how was he going to win them back?
Hollywood Goes Gay ... and Obama Follows the Money
Much of Hollywood believed that the biggest betrayal from the White House was on gay rights. Gay rights was a natural "cause celeb": Not only has Hollywood always had a libertarian streak, but the industry draws upon a large amount of gay and lesbian talent. West Hollywood is estimated to be 40 percent gay, making it the sixth gayest district in the United States. So the passage of California's anti–gay marriage Proposition 8 in 2008 had a profound effect upon the movie community. It found itself on the front line of the culture war, with friends and family as the foot soldiers. Understandably, they insisted that the president pick a side.
Dustin Lance Black, the scriptwriter behind the biopic Milk, about a gay rights leader, explained to me how the issue of marriage equality created a rare sense of political unity in Hollywood, but also a wide sense of frustration at the slow pace of change coming out of Washington. If a cause was so self-evidently right, why did the president drag his heels? Black wrote in an editorial for The Hollywood Reporter:
The fact that Obama says his position is "evolving" indicates change, but that simply leaves me hoping again. Is this "evolution" akin to a message from a good friend, who, after an argument, has stepped onto an L.A.to-N.Y. red-eye? He can't fall asleep until he sends that e-mail saying, "Hey, I'm at 30,000 feet (over the swing state of Ohio). Don't worry, I'll make things right when I finally land in (the equality state of) N.Y." Possibly. Hopefully. The problem is, when the president flies, he's on Air Force One, a plane designed to refuel in the air. He can stay up there for as long as it serves him.
The metaphor was strained, the politics unreal. As on so many other issues, Hollywood misunderstood the man they met in 2008: Obama was never a gay marriage advocate. He'd always said that he felt marriage was exclusively between a man and a woman, and expecting him to go beyond that was naïve. The caution reflected political reality: Hitherto, every single referendum held on gay marriage had ended in defeat, and that defeat wasn't just at the hands of the clichéd white, redneck bigots. California's Proposition 8 passed in 2008 thanks to the large turnout of Hispanic and African-American voters that occurred, in turn, thanks to Obama being on the ballot. In an ironic twist, Obama's candidacy was partly responsible for California's ban on gay marriage.
Hollywood's campaign for gay marriage existed within its own bubble. In a town where memories are shorter than Tom Cruise, people easily forgot that the moviemakers had only been agitating for gay rights for a couple of years. The turning point had been the release of Milk, a surprise hit that suddenly made it glamorous — even sexy — to support gay rights. Milk generated a fashionable passion for them, and the movie community expressed that passion in the only way it knew how: house parties, celebrity endorsements, and by putting on a show.
Excerpted from Citizen Hollywood by Timothy Stanley. Copyright © 2014 Timothy Stanley. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
INTRODUCTION: DIRTY HARRY VS. HAROLD AND KUMAR
1. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES
How Hollywood Helped Reelect Obama
2. THE COLOR OF MONEY
How Hollywood's cash buys influence
3. EASY RIDERS
How Hollywood became a poisoned chalice for liberal reformers
4. THE SOCIAL NETWORK
How Politics Helps To Make Movies
5. THE WEST WING
How Hollywood created a new kind of liberal hero
6. TRUE GRIT
How the Republicans Came to Love the Cowboy
7. MAN OF STEEL
How Hollywood Turned the President into a Leading Man
8. MODERN FAMILY
How Hollywood's Product is a Lot Less Liberal Than Conservatives Claim
9. THE GREAT GATSBY
How Hollywood and Washington Face the Future and Dance
CONCLUSION: INDEPENDENCE DAY