Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration between LA and DC Revolutionized American Politics

Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration between LA and DC Revolutionized American Politics

by Timothy Stanley

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250032492
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 05/13/2014
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

TIMOTHY STANLEY graduated with a Ph.D. in history from Cambridge University and has spent time as a research fellow at Harvard and Oxford. The author of two books, Kennedy vs. Carter and The Crusader, and co-editor of Making Sense of American Liberalism, he has written political commentary for the National Review Online, The Atlantic, Dissent Magazine, the New Republic, and CNN.com, and is a columnist for The Daily Telegraph.

Read an Excerpt

1

 

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.1

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.2

“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!”3

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.4 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.5 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.

Seducing Hollywood

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.”6

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.’”7 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.”8

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.”9

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.”10

The comparison struck a chord: producer Harvey Weinstein also called Obama “The Paul Newman of American politics.”11 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.12

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.13

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?14 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.15

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.16

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.17

After Chief Justice Vaughn Walker ruled that California’s gay marriage ban was unconstitutional, Dustin Lance Black decided to write a play about it. I say “write”—he actually just invited a lot of very famous people to read out the trial’s transcript onstage. The cast was impressive: George Clooney, Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, Martin Sheen, and John Lithgow. Financing came from industry insiders Steve Bing, Roland Emmerich, and David Geffen; they put it on in both Los Angeles and New York and broadcast it live. “New Yorkers just got it,” said Black. But what New Yorkers? The play was only performed once in New York, and it was followed by an exclusive reception at the Gotham Comedy Club. This was Hollywood putting on a show for Hollywood, and it might just as well have been performed in Black’s garden. Probably the only dissenting member of the audience was anti–gay rights campaigner Maggie Gallagher, who came along to see how she would be played by Glee’s Jane Lynch. She ate potato chips loudly throughout the performance and laughed in all the wrong places.18

So if Hollywood really was only talking to itself on the gay marriage issue, why did its views matter to the Democrats at all? One reason was money.

By May 2012, it was becoming obvious that Obama’s refusal to say “I do” to gay marriage was hurting his wallet. One in six of the candidate’s so-called bundlers—people collecting large donations from others—was gay, and NBC’s Chuck Todd claimed on the Morning Joe show that gay money had started to eclipse Wall Street money as a major source of cash.19 The Hollywood Reporter noted how commonplace the marriage debate was in Hollywood and how the president’s inaction was hurting him. Quote:

It’s safe to say that the longer Obama waits on the issue, the more frustrated the [movie] community will grow with him. Perhaps it won’t cost him their votes, but it might slow the flow of cash and public rally appearances.20

That report was filed on Tuesday, May 8, 2012. The timing is important.

On Sunday, May 6, Vice President Joe Biden had appeared on Meet the Press. North Carolina was about to hold a vote on outlawing gay marriage. When asked what he thought about the referendum, Biden dropped a bomb. He refused to rule out the president endorsing gay marriage in his second term—and added that he personally had no problem with gay weddings at all: “I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women marrying one another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties.” Asked why he had changed his mind on the issue, Biden recalled meeting the kids of gay people and seeing “the look of love” in their eyes. But he also name-dropped the sitcom Will & Grace—which “probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody’s ever done so far.” Never has the cultural power of TV and movies been so explicit.21

Why Biden did what he did is a matter of dispute. One source told me that he had gone rogue; the White House had no idea what he was going to do and was thrown into chaos when he did it. “All the press suddenly wanted to talk about was gay marriage. Whenever someone went on TV, that’s what the journalists would talk about.”22 Certainly, that’s exactly what happened. David Axelrod was pushed by Piers Morgan on CNN about whether or not the president and the vice president disagreed, while deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter was fairly grilled alive on NBC.23 Two days after Biden’s interview, North Carolina voted 2 to 1 not only to outlaw gay marriage but also civil unions. That morning several aides stopped Obama in the Oval Office and informed him that he had to make a statement on gay marriage or else his campaign would be totally overwhelmed. The debate among the staff lasted a matter of minutes. An interview with ABC was hastily arranged and, on Wednesday, May 9, the president of the United States said on TV that he thought gay marriage should be legal. History had been made, and Will & Grace had at least something to do with it.24

What was at the forefront of Obama’s mind? According to much of the press, and his own campaign, Biden had simply forced him to do sooner something he always intended to do later.

But others suspected a different motive. If Obama had not endorsed gay marriage, the cost to his campaign might have been greater than if he had. Recall that just one day before the president went on ABC, The Hollywood Reporter was warning that progay marriage donors were getting itchy feet. If the president had simply repeated his view on air that marriage is exclusively heterosexual unless the states say otherwise, then he would have lost out on a lot of Hollywood money. But by endorsing gay marriage after Biden’s interview, Obama cashed in big. And we’re talking big. Within ninety minutes of Obama’s broadcast statement he had taken $1 million in donations. The legendary TV producer Norman Lear, who had previously held out on giving any money to Obama, let it be known that he and his wife were now donating eighty thousand dollars. “This is the kind of leadership we support,” he said, “and we are happy to max out today to his reelection campaign.”25

The day after he endorsed gay marriage, Obama flew to George Clooney’s house in California for a fund-raiser. Stars paid forty thousand dollars each to shake his hand and call him brave. The Hollywood Reporter told readers:

On June 6, the president will be at the SLS hotel in Beverly Hills for an LGBT fund-raiser featuring a performance by Pink. (A sellout now is virtually guaranteed.) Obama will be at another LBGT fund-raiser Monday in New York, featuring a performance by Ricky Martin.

By backing gay marriage, Obama had made history. But he had also made a lot of money.26

Aside from being about fund-raising, it was hard not to detect a dash of ego in Obama’s gay marriage U-turn. The president offered no practical support for gay rights advocates: He insisted that the matter be decided at the state level and continued to refuse to sign a nondiscrimination executive order. Conservatives also took offense at the language he used when talking about the gay “soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf.” Technically, they fight under the president’s orders but not on his behalf—a turn of phrase that irritated some veterans.27

But the egotism of discussing the “evolution” of his private beliefs in this way probably raised Obama’s approval rating even higher among the moviemakers. It refocused attention upon Obama’s unique personality and leadership—and Hollywood could easily identify with his charismatic introspection. What liberal movie star couldn’t love a president who had not only come over to their way of thinking but who also was willing to fly over to Hollywood and have dinner with them to discuss it? The sense of personal and political alienation from the White House evaporated overnight. It was just like it was four years earlier. Obama was the moviemakers’ man again—a reforming liberal who would help Hollywood make America a better country. It was time for 2008: the Sequel.

Hollywood Throws Around Some Money

Almost every Hollywood skeptic came home. Director Rob Reiner confessed to a sin of doubt:

“I felt that [Obama] tried to accommodate the other side too much,” he told reporters. “[But] I realize now that it was an attempt to try to broker some kind of compromise. I think he realized like everybody realized, that it’s virtually impossible. Given all of that, I think he has done an incredible job.”

Bill Maher cut a check to the president’s super PAC for $1 million. “I think all progressives are disappointed in Obama to a degree,” he said. “He is not slashing the defense budget, he is not raising taxes on the wealthy, really. He gave in on the Bush tax cuts.” But Mitt Romney—the only alternative to the president—was too awful to contemplate. “It’s not even close. You just run back into his arms.” It helped that Obama now swallowed his pride and picked up the phone. He called Ari Emanuel, the talent agent brother of Rahm Emanuel, formerly Obama’s first chief of staff, to ask what he needed to do to win Hollywood back. Haim Saban, an industry billionaire who made a fortune out of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, and who had privately criticized Obama on Israel, was received at the White House and, consequently, gave his blessing.28

Michelle also acted as Barack’s envoy to the stars. What’s striking about Michelle is her ordinariness. In October she appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live. The host asked her what she could do if she was an anonymous civilian for a day, and her answer was touching:

I would walk out of the door of the White House like a regular person … go to CVS, go in there, go shop. I’d buy my toiletries. I’d pay money, I’d get a receipt. And then I’d go sit on a park bench and just watch people.29

So what did the First Lady really think about all the mad money she encountered in Hollywood? What, for example, did she think of Will Smith’s collection of ornamental doors?

Michelle was a guest at the twenty-five-hundred-square-foot residence of Will and Jada Smith the same day she recorded her interview with Jimmy Kimmel. It was a house built from scratch; every piece of furniture was custom-made. Architectural Digest described it this way:

Ancient cultures are referenced throughout—thanks to the Smiths’ collection of antique carved panels, doors, and architectural details from the Middle East, Africa, the American Southwest, and Asia, including the house’s monumental front door, which once provided entry to a fort in northern India. “I have a thing for doors,” Jada confesses. “I always think of them as a threshold to something new.”30

And, of course, a convenient way to get from one room to another.

Through Mrs. Smith’s doors passed 250 people paying $2,500 a ticket to meet the First Lady. If you wanted a photo with her, the door price leaped to $10,000. Lunch was included. According to People magazine,

[G]uests dined on a roasted grapes and arugula with goat cheese toast salad; a choice of Alaskan halibut with fennel puree, devil’s chicken with braised leeks, onions and mustard bread crumbs or Farro Tabbouleh with fall market vegetables.31

In her speech, Michelle invoked a very different time and place:

Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I watched my own father make that same uncomplaining journey every day to his job at the city water plant. And I saw how he carried himself with that same dignity. We all know that dignity, that same pride that a man gets when he can provide for his family.

It was a sentiment that Will Smith could understand—he, too, had come from nothing to become the kind of guy who could import his front door from India. Michelle said that her own family

believed that when you’ve worked hard and done well like so many of us have, and you finally walk through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you. No, you reach back and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed. And that is how Barack and I know how so many of you were raised.

Michelle actually gave a good working definition of Hollywood liberalism—having lived the American Dream to the full, the moviemakers see it as their duty to expand similar opportunities to others. That’s how they reconcile their crazy wealth with their claim to egalitarianism.

One way to help those less fortunate, apparently, was to redistribute their income to the Obama campaign. The party at the Smith house netted an extraordinary $2.1 million.32 In total, October brought in $13 million from Hollywood. By election night the entertainment community had given more to the official Obama campaign than to Romney by an estimated advantage of 16 to 1.33

That $13 million figure doesn’t cover the incredible outpouring of funds made possible by the super PACs. Many Democrats—especially in Hollywood—had bemoaned the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision that made it possible for activists to donate money to a body that wasn’t technically part of an individual’s campaign.34 But the Democrats ended up doing pretty well on it. The Court’s decision allowed entertainment industry tycoons like Morgan Freeman to give over $1 million each to Obama’s Priorities USA Action, while others became “bundlers” for other people—donors who took money from friends and family and combined it all into one giant gift. The entertainment industry provided forty-one bundlers. And being a bundler came with a quid pro quo: a degree of access to the White House that had been hitherto unavailable. Producer Jeffrey Katzenberg donated $3.07 million through gifts and bundles, making him the third-largest individual Democrat donor of 2012. He was spotted at a White House soiree just before the election mingling with then Chinese vice president Xi Jinping. A little while later the Chinese signed off on an overseas deal that benefited Katzenberg’s studio. I’m not implying a link; just noting the coincidence.35

Citizens United had a big effect on the culture of Hollywood giving. In the past, stars like Eva Longoria—a star of Desperate Housewives—might have just made one-off donations that were worth a speedy phone call of thanks from the Oval Office. But thanks to bundling she was able to bring in nearly three hundred thousand dollars and, again coincidentally, get a prime-time speaking spot at the convention.36 This was a new kind of giving—a marketing of connections and celebrity on a scale previously unimaginable. In 2012, Hollywood bought itself a whole new level of influence in national politics.

Hollywood Rebrands Obama

The New York fund-raiser with Sarah Jessica Parker and Anna Wintour worked out well for Obama partly because it raked in lots of cash, but also because it helped him to connect with the key demographic of young women. In 2012, Hollywood helped plug the president into a cultural zeitgeist that proved rich in votes.

In the past, Hollywood’s social liberalism tended to be a net vote loser for the Democrats. In the 2000s, in particular, George W. Bush’s old-fashioned values had led to a revival of the Moral Majority spirit—convincing many Democrat strategists that associations with progay, prochoice, prodope Hollywood were a liability. By 2012, however, the electoral mathematics had changed, and Democrats now gambled that there were enough people turned off by aggressive religious conservatives on the Right to make social liberalism a vote winner.

A new phase in the culture war began in January 2012, when the White House decided that religious employers would be forced to include birth control and other reproductive services in their workers’ health care coverage. Rather than running away from the culture war, Obama had decided to fight and win. In the course of the year he defended abortion rights and endorsed gay marriage. And his campaign exploited the enormous gender gap that opened up between male and female voters. In poll after poll Obama ran even or behind Romney among men but far ahead among women. The socially liberal commentator Andrew Sullivan applauded Obama’s focus on condoms and gay weddings:

The more Machiavellian observer might even suspect this is actually an improved bait and switch by Obama to more firmly identify the religious right with opposition to contraception, its weakest issue by far, and to shore up support among independent women and his more liberal base.… And if this was a trap, the religious right walked right into it.37

They sure did. The Republican Party peppered the election year with bouts of offensive chauvinism. Senatorial candidate Todd Akin of Missouri spoke of a distinction between “legitimate rape” and fake rape, while the senatorial candidate in Indiana, Richard Mourdock, appeared to suggest that pregnancy resulting from rape was “intended” by God. While Mitt Romney was running for president in 2012, some members of his party behaved like they were running for Witchfinder General in 1612.38

Republicans complained mightily that the administration and the media were playing the culture war so as to distract from high unemployment and burgeoning welfare rolls. Many of them presumed that it wouldn’t work—that the “tastelessness” of Obama’s campaign would undo him. In particular, they scorned the ruthless pursuit of the young female vote. Republicans laughed when the Obama campaign released The Life of Julia, an online cartoon that depicted the ways in which White House policies helped a woman over the course of her time on Earth. At eighteen, she gets a college tax credit. At twenty-seven she gets mandated birth control coverage. By the time she’s sixty-seven, she’s livin’ la vida loca on social security and volunteering in a community garden. For Rich Lowry of the National Review, this ad was a mistake by Team Obama to rival the Anna Wintour ad:

Julia’s central relationship is to the state. It is her educator, banker, health-care provider, venture capitalist, and retirement fund. And she is, fundamentally, a taker.… She has no moral qualms about forcing others to pay for her contraception, and her sense of patriotic duty is limited to getting as much government help as she can.39

The Right was in hysterics when the Obama campaign produced an e-card that read: “Vote like your lady parts depend on it.” The White House, they said, had resorted to smut.40

But to a new generation of women, contraception, abortion, and reliance on government programs (made all the more necessary by a bad economy) were simply the facts of life. Lena Dunham, writer, creator, and director of HBO’s Girls, cut an ad called “Your First Time” that horrified conservatives but amused a lot of her own age group. It compared the first time voting with the first time of something altogether more enjoyable: “Your first time shouldn’t be with just anybody, you wanna do it with a great guy,” she whispered.

It should be with a guy with beautiful manners.… Someone who really cares about and understands women.… My first time voting was amazing. It was this line in the sand. Before I was a girl, now I was a woman.

Whether or not folks found this funny or smutty depended upon age and politics. “How could a president with two, young blossoming daughters release an ad as disgusting as this?” asked an editor of Breitbart.com.41

But the video eventually gained 2.5 million hits on YouTube. Its thinly veiled crudity might’ve appalled conservatives raised on Happy Days, but it was a perfect fit for kids used to obscenity-laden shows like Family Guy or South Park. Dunham’s ad was part of a wider effort to use the entertainment industry to cast the president as young and “with it.” Colleges were visited by singer will.i.am, Kal Penn, Daily Show correspondent Olivia Munn, and actor Justin Long. Rock acts like John Legend, Trey Songz, Raphael Saadiq, and Passion Pit provided free concerts in battleground states.42 Of course, such glitzy, youth-orientated efforts had been tried before—both in winning years for the Democrats (1992) and disastrous ones (1972). What was different this time around was that polls showed that a majority of the electorate sided with the socially liberal message being articulated. The bands were singing in tune with the mood of a substantial number of voters.

It also helps that the campaign started pushing Barack Obama as Batman. Seriously. The most exciting movie release of the summer of 2012 was The Dark Knight Rises, and the White House marked the occasion by releasing a photo of Obama and Biden high-fiving each other with the title “Dynamic Duo.” The Washington Examiner reported that the Obama campaign wanted to use the release of The Dark Knight Rises to crystallize the differences between their man and Romney. The villain of the movie is called Bane, and Romney’s former company happened to be called Bain, which led to some (pretty thin) comparisons between Mitt and the asthmatic behemoth who levels Gotham City. Democratic adviser Christopher Lehane told the Examiner:

Whether it is spelled Bain and being put out by the Obama campaign or Bane and being put out by Hollywood, the narratives are similar: a highly intelligent villain with offshore interests and a past both are seeking to cover up who had a powerful father and is set on pillaging society.43

Poor old Romney was indeed the anti–Dark Knight but not in the sense of being evil like Bane. Rather, he seemed indecisive and insubstantial and far removed from people’s everyday concerns. Mark Hamill, the star of Star Wars, compared Romney to the shape-shifting alien in The Thing, released in 2012: “You look at Romney and I’m sure he’s a nice guy, but I think he’s like The Thing, he only imitates human behavior. He’s not actually human himself.”44

The Republicans understood the role that Hollywood was playing in defining the candidates. Stuart Stevens told me that it had always been a factor, that many of the candidates he had worked with before were somewhat like old movie stars and that this helped define them in the public’s mind: “I’d say Ronald Reagan was a bit like John Wayne … Bob Dole was kind of like Humphrey Bogart—smart, funny, old-school.” But when I pressed Stevens to describe Romney, rather than offering a movie star reference he gave a string of qualities in search of a central narrative: friendly, optimistic, charming, thoughtful, etc. When pushed a little harder, the best that Stevens could come up with was to say that Romney was “maybe kind of like James Stewart.” If so, that only emphasized how out of time his politics were. This was a year when people wanted Batman not George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life.45

The problem was that the 2012 election wasn’t nearly as much about economics as conservatives hoped. If it had been, Obama probably wouldn’t have won: Unemployment was historically high, and the president’s approval ratings hovered around the mid-40s for much of the year. Instead, Obama’s victory came down to changing demographics and culture. While Romney took the white vote, the president benefited from a huge turnout among Hispanics (now the country’s largest ethnic minority at 16.7 percent of the population) and African-Americans. Far from being concentrated along the border, Hispanics had built sizable populations in crucial swing states—which is one reason why Virginia, the capital of the old Confederacy, went twice for Obama. And although Ronald Reagan insisted that Hispanics were Republicans “who just don’t know it yet,” polling showed them to be stereotypical Democrats, almost liberals. Not only had the credit crunch forced middle-class Hispanics to rely on the state more than ever, but they were just as socially tolerant as whites.46

And that’s the key to understanding 2012: It was an election that hinged on the dynamics of social change. The young made up an unusually high proportion of the electorate (19.1 percent), and they were far mellower than older voters on social issues. For example, Hollywood’s gay marriage campaign might have been self-absorbed and naïve, but its message did reflect how growing numbers of ordinary Americans felt about their gay friends and coworkers. The same day Obama was reelected, three states voted to legalize gay marriage, and two states voted to legalize smoking marijuana. A Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project survey discovered that the fastest growing “religious” group in America was made up of people with no religion at all. Thirty-three million Americans said they were without a specific faith and thirteen million within that number described themselves as atheist or agnostic.47 The old orthodoxies of presidential contests—that you had to be outwardly religious and culturally traditionalist to win—were coming undone. American voters were drawn more to Obama’s liberal Dark Knight narrative than to Republican Jimmy Stewart nostalgia.

Hollywood Wins

On election night, Twitter exploded with celebrity approval for Obama.

Justin Bieber: “alot of emotions right now. congrats President Obama … Im Canadian. Im good. #FreeHealthcare:)”

Lady Gaga: “I JUST GOT OFF STAGE IN COLUMBIA!! CONGRATULATIONS MR. PRESIDENT @BarackObama! We are so proud to be American tonight! YES!!! YES! YES!!”

Even One Direction’s Niall Horan (the Irish one, for anyone who’s not a fan): “Wey hey! Come on @barackobama! Champion! What a man! 4 more years!”48

There were plenty of famous faces at Obama’s rally, too: Zachary Quinto, Justin Long, Ashley Judd. Melanie Griffith got so excited that she dropped an F-bomb live on TV.49

The stars had good reason to celebrate. For a start, their guy had won. And with that victory came an affirmation that, No, Hollywood isn’t an alien planet circling a far Left sun; it does share the values of about half of the American public, so it really can claim to speak for significant numbers of ordinary people. All that conservative snobbery toward the moviemakers and their craft was misplaced. It did matter that Matt Damon was angry. Some people did share Hollywood’s views on gay marriage. Sarah Jessica Parker did speak for the silent majority of girls who just wanna have fun. Lena Dunham’s first time was a giggle. And Eva Longoria could win an election.

That last point about Eva winning the election is critical to understanding how Hollywood viewed 2012. Much of the industry felt that they had been indispensable to Obama, that he couldn’t have done it without them. In three key ways they were right:

1. Hollywood helped Obama raise the money he needed to win.

2. The stars used their celebrity to promote the Obama ticket and help define it.

3. The moviemakers helped to set the tone of the election both by stirring up the culture war and by encouraging voters to regard Obama as a superhero.

Importantly, it wasn’t just the election that was changed by Hollywood’s involvement; the election changed Hollywood, too. Stars got to play the roles of politicians. Some were ambassadors for their candidate (Eva Longoria), while others enjoyed genuine influence in the campaign and the White House (Kal Penn). Hollywood was also alleged to have enjoyed some kickbacks. Republicans accused the White House of giving producers of Zero Dark Thirty (2012)—a movie about the killing of Osama bin Laden—access to classified CIA documents in exchange for an understanding that the film would portray the president in a positive light.50

What was historically remarkable about 2012 was the degree to which the movie industry helped a candidate win. As the culture war intensifies, as campaign spending rises ever higher, and as Hollywood becomes more aware of its potential power, we can expect this process to continue, and even to accelerate. Nevertheless, although the current situation feels almost revolutionary, it is one with deep roots in American history. In the next few chapters we’ll explore the decades of Hollywood’s involvement in political debate that helped to set the context for both Obama’s election and reelection. It’s the story of a slow-burning romance between movies and politics that has grown hotter over time. A romance that began with the spark of reciprocity.

 

Copyright © 2014 by Timothy Stanley

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

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