Harnessing Hollywood

Hands down, no one feigns moral indignity better than Republicans. No one. Take for example the recent over-the-top theatrics by the GOP in response to Whoopi Goldberg's comedy routine at a Kerry-Edwards fundraiser, joking that the President's last name happens to be a double entendre.

Fox News, the sister channel of the network that brought America "My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé" described the incident as "unseemly," Goldberg's routine as "blue material," and even offered "it was an evening al Qaeda could love." Bush's campaign manager Ken Mehlman called the evening a "star-studded hate fest."

While, as Fox News put it, "Whoopi Goldberg making vulgar puns about her anatomy" is out of bounds, it is apparently perfectly acceptable to have someone accused of groping the anatomy of 16 women, Arnold Schwarzenegger, as the primetime speaker at the Republican convention.

Recall Governor Schwarzenegger's response to the groping charges last year: "I have to tell you that I always say, that wherever there is smoke, there is fire. That is true. So I want to say to you, yes, that I have behaved badly sometimes. Yes, it is true that I was on rowdy movie sets and I have done things that were not right which I thought then was playful but now I recognize that I have offended people."

Take note – in the world of unwavering GOP moral certitude, a world in which things are black or white, right or wrong, and you're either with us or against us – crotch jokes are unacceptable; crotch groping is acceptable.

Is this a case of moral relativism? Cognitive dissonance? Plain old-fashioned hypocrisy? Or perhaps something else is at hand?

Could it be that, when it comes to celebrities, Republicans have to take what they can get? After all, the featured "stars" at the 2000 GOP convention were Charlton Heston, Ben Stein, Ricky Schroeder, Steve Young, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, one-time Miss Americas Heather Whitestone and Nicole Johnson, and Bo Derek, who was tragically described in the convention's press release as "a film icon." The GOP's celebrity line-up brings to mind that movie "Weekend at Bernie's."

With incredible, if unintended, irony, in the days after the Whoopi whoop-di-do, Republican strategist Leslie Sanchez said, "We know the truth is that every four years a cavalcade of washed-up Hollywood starlets come out of the woodwork to perform and raise money for the Democratic Party." Who is washed up?

A recent Kerry fundraiser in LA was hosted by Scarlett Johansson, Kirsten Dunst, Ben Affleck, and Leonardo DiCaprio, among other hip Hollywood A-listers, and featured performances by Jack Black's band Tenacious D and Dave Grohl of Nirvana and Foo Fighters fame. The Radio City Music Hall fundraiser in question drew Academy Award winners including Paul Newman, Meryl Streep, and Jessica Lange, musicians such as Mary J. Blige and Dave Matthews, and trendmakers like Sarah Jessica Parker.

Don't take my word for it. Back in August 2000 Bill O'Reilly, in an interview with Schwarzenegger, bemoaned the GOP's dearth of star power: "Now, you are one of the few in Hollywood who actively campaigns for the Republican cause. Bruce Willis has retreated. Tom Selleck is now an independent. It's you and Heston, Charlton Heston. You're alone out there."

Perhaps no one understands the power of celebrity more than the GOP, whose modern-day ideological father was an actor, after all. In 1964, Republican George Murphy, of Broadway and Hollywood fame, was elected to serve as Senator, and that same year, actor Ronald Reagan delivered a nationally televised speech on behalf of the GOP's presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. Goldwater lost in a landslide, but the great conservative communicator was born, Republicans saw the power of celebrity, and two years later Ronald Reagan became Governor of California. The rest, of course, is conservative history.

Is caring about celebrities silly and shallow? Does celebrity have a place in the political arena? Ask Bush advisor Vin Weber, who gushed after Schwarzenegger's victory, "People will think, 'If the Republican Party is good enough for Arnold Schwarzenegger, it is good enough for me.'" Or go to the Wall Street Journal's editorial page which squealed about newly elected Governor Schwarzenegger, "He's cool!" praised the GOP for getting "totally wired-in to mega-celebrity," commented on the "sea of young attractive faces" at the Schwarzenegger victory celebration and concluded that "in terms of mass market politics it was as hip as any politician could ever hope for."

What is more, a CBS News Poll in August 2003 found that the majority of Americans believe that "Hollywood celebrities can offer a new perspective on political issues and should get involved in politics if they choose."

Republicans clearly know that celebrity sells. Despite the fact that the vast majority of celebrities are Democrats, the vast majority of those who run for office are Republicans: Ronald Reagan, George Murphy, Sonny Bono, Fred Grandy, Steve Largent, Fred Thompson, JC Watts, Jack Kemp, Clint Eastwood, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Republicans Kelsey Grammer and Dennis Miller have both openly expressed their interest in running for the U.S. Senate. Former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka recently toyed with taking on Barack Obama in the Senate race in Illinois. And did you happen to notice the prominent positioning of quarterback Tom Brady, a Republican with political ambitions, at President Bush's 2004 State of the Union Address?

While publicly railing against Hollywood, the "cultural elite," and celebrity involvement in politics, behind the scenes GOP leaders are working overtime to recruit and promote Republican entertainers, because they understand the power of celebrity. According to this GOP double standard, Republican actors and athletes make great ideological leaders and topnotch candidates, but Democratic celebrities are Hollywood's "cultural elite" and should, as conservative author Laura Ingraham put it, "shut up and sing."

Of course, celebrity doesn't appeal to everyone, especially many older voters, but let's take a look at some facts and figures. The average American adult spends 4 hours watching television each day. 98.7% of all American households have at least one television set and 41% have three or more televisions. In 1989 Coke employed 59 different celebrities, and by 1999 nearly 20% of television commercials featured celebrity spokespeople. Tiger Woods is on track to earn $1 billion in endorsements alone before he turns 40 years old. And George Foreman has sold more than 50 million Salton grills, which means that one in every two households in America has a Foreman Grill. Every year, corporations spend billions of dollars on endorsement deals because celebrity sells.

It's no wonder conservatives like Laura Ingraham want celebrities, the vast majority of whom are Democrats, to shut-up and sing. The whole "Hollywood cultural elite" slag is an intimidation tactic, intended to keep the power of celebrity, which is squarely in the corner of the Democratic Party, out of politics. In an increasingly media-saturated culture, star power may prove the GOP's Achilles' heel.

Yet, in enthusiastically endorsing political novice Arnold Schwarzenegger for Governor of California and in featuring him as the primetime speaker at the Republican convention this year, the GOP is, in effect, legitimizing the role and voice of entertainers in the political arena. With Arnold's admitted "rowdy" behavior with women, his various comments on bodily fluids in "Pumping Iron," and his latest "girlie men" comment (this from a guy who said announcing his candidacy for governor was "the most difficult decision I have made since I got a bikini wax") they are also undermining their position as the defenders of values. Choosing between the traditional values of their base and the mainstream appeal of celebrity, the GOP chose celebrity.

It's dangerous terrain for Republicans, because in terms of star power, as Bill O'Reilly whined, Schwarzenegger's out there alone. He's pretty much their one and only "mega-celebrity," as the Wall Street Journal put it.

If GOP strategist Vin Weber is right, and Americans see Arnold at the convention and think to themselves, "if the Republican Party is good enough for him it's good enough for me," then the GOP may find itself in a world of trouble down the line. After all, if the Democratic Party is good enough for Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston, George Clooney, Ben Affleck, Julia Roberts, Paul Newman, Michael Douglas, J.Lo, Robert Redford, Tom Hanks, Gwyneth Paltrow, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kirsten Dunst, et al, then it just might be good enough for a whole lot of Americans too.

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