Hollywood on Trial

In the weeks since John Kerry's defeat in the presidential election, many Democratic politicians and the consultants who run their campaigns and various members of what Eric Alterman calls "the so-called liberal media" have suggested a variety of scapegoats to distract attention from the central strategic mistakes of the national Democratic party in recent years. Despite the obvious fact that decisive leadership and its relation to the war on terrorism was the driving gestalt of the campaign, many pundits pointed to gay marriage as a key to President Bush's victory. Despite the unprecedented turnout of younger voters and the fact that they were the only age group to favor John Kerry, numerous articles inaccurately claimed that the youth turnout did not increase or help the Democrats. Not surprisingly, that favorite whipping boy of the conventional wisdom crowd, liberal Hollywood, has now been added to the list of scapegoats – branded a supposed swing factor for the 22 percent of voters felt that "moral values" was the most important election issue.

Of course no one knows exactly what those voters who cited "moral values" meant. Democrats never had much of a chance at getting voters for whom abortion and gay marriage are litmus tests, so it's hard to figure out exactly which voters would have accepted Kerry's moderate position on those issues but would have switched from Bush to Kerry if the senator had expressed more moral dudgeon about Janet Jackson's breast – the appearance of which New York Times columnist William Safire bizarrely called "the social political event of the year." (Apparently the Super Bowl commercials for Cialis that discussed the perils of 4-hour erections are off limits for criticism by pro-corporate moralists of both parties.)

In a recent Los Angeles Times article Patrick Goldstein said "Hollywood took it on the chin" in the recent election. In fact, the entertainment business was much less of a factor in 2004 than it was in the two previous elections when the losers, Bob Dole in 1996 and Al Gore and Joe Lieberman in 2000 specifically injected moral criticism of Hollywood into their campaigns, not because they could do anything about the popular culture but supposedly to show empathy for families appalled by coarseness and profanity.

Goldstein mentioned a handful of harsh references to President Bush made by assorted celebrities during the recent campaign (the same ones that Stephanie Mansfield of the right-wing Washington Times had cited a week before): Jennifer Aniston, the "Friends" actress who called Mr. Bush "a fucking idiot"; John Mellencamp, who described Mr. Bush as "a cheap thug"; and Cher, who called Bush "stupid and lazy." Then there was the Whoopi Goldberg joke, a pun based on the President's last name that she told at a Kerry fundraiser at Radio City Music Hall.

No one denies that some entertainers said stupid things at Kerry fundraisers and they should be criticized for the remarks. But there were literally thousands of entertainment/political events during the campaign, so why single out this handful? Certainly it's not the dirty words, given the widely documented profane outbursts by both Bush and Cheney. It may not be the smartest tactic to so bluntly insult a sitting president, but no entertainer remotely equaled the contempt that Republicans heaped on President Clinton. Congressman Dan Burton called him a "scumbag," and Jerry Fallwell enthusiastically hawked a video that accused Clinton of murder. No conservative columnists or politicians suggested that Republicans back away from them.

During a campaign season that included the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, an escalation in fighting with hundreds of U.S. forces killed, rising gas prices and unavailability of flu shots, is it actually plausible to suggest that Whoopi's joke or Jennifer Aniston's expletive had an effect on the election's outcome? They didn't do exit polls about that. The only Hollywood-related quote that was ever cited by the Bush campaign came from not from anyone in showbiz but from John Kerry himself, when he said the Radio City performers represented "the heart and soul of America." A simple "thank you" would have sufficed.

Of course for Democratic campaign consultants and their friends in the media it's much better to point fingers at a tiny minority of Democratic celebrities who raised money than to question the competence of the supposed experts who spent the money on the losing campaign.

Goldstein approvingly quoted former Clinton chief of staff Leon Panetta as saying "The party of FDR has become the party of Michael Moore and that doesn't help the party." Similarly, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote in a post-election column, "Firing up the base means turning off swing voters. Gov. Mike Johanns, a Nebraska Republican told me that each time Michael Moore spoke up for John Kerry, Mr. Kerry's support among Nebraskans took a dive."

Of course, Michael Moore did not run for president. John Kerry did. Nor did Moore run John Kerry's campaign. The analogue to Michael Moore (and Al Franken) is William Buckley, who created a vigorous and unapologetic conservative presence in the media in the 1960s that contributed enormously to today's conservative establishment.

It is surreal for a deficit hawk such as Panetta to attack an advocate for the working class such as Michael Moore on the basis of Franklin Roosevelt's legacy, but maybe he feels that Roosevelt should only be remembered for fighting a war and not for the New Deal. As far as showbiz contact goes, Roosevelt was very close to a number of entertainers and people in the media – such as columnist Walter Winchell, whom he regularly invited to the White House, actor and comedian Will Rogers, and director Frank Capra, whom he commissioned to make a series of films to explain to American servicemen and their families why the United States was fighting World War II.

Nebraska, it goes without saying, is not a swing state, and it implausible that there were polls that measured the effect of Michael Moore's utterances. More to the point, it is pretty silly to ask Republicans for advice on how Democrats can win. They want Democrats to lose and they know that anything they say in the media is part of what political pros call "the permanent campaign." It is more likely that the Republicans are trying to psyche out their opponents so that they stay distant from one of their most valuable allies.

It should be noted that Moore has virtually nothing to do with the conventional entertainment business. "Farenheit 9-11" was rejected by all Hollywood studios. Moore is offensive to middle-of-the-road Democrats not because he is casual about his politics, which is the usual criticism of celebrities, but precisely because he is so serious. Moore opposed the war in Iraq in contrast to Democratic congressional leaders and Kerry and Edwards. Democrats should recognize that Moore's fierce opposition to Ralph Nader and firm support for John Kerry was a major factor in Nader's lack of success in attracting anti-war votes this year.

The most Orwellian element in the conventional wisdom that bashes Hollywood liberals is the way that actors magically become wise political leaders as soon as they become Republicans. Arnold Schwarzenegger is to be treated as a political phenomenon and potential president. Ron Silver, who supported Bush, was given a speaking spot at the Republican convention. One can't help but think that if Silver were against the war and Tim Robbins favored it that the same people who now treat Silver as a sage would be making fun of him and the same people who belittle Robbins would be posing for pictures with him.

The reason why many actors became so politically visible last year was that Democratic leaders, ignoring the vast majority of their supporters, failed to oppose the war in Iraq and failed to articulate core Democratic values. If the Democratic congressional leadership had reflected their constituency and voted against the war, Sean Penn would have gotten a lot less TV time. If the so-called liberal media had reported all of the news, Michael Moore would have lacked most of the content of "Farenheit 9-11."

Kristof and his ilk seemed to think that "rallying the base" is a political mistake but it was the primary strategy of Karl Rove, the mastermind of Bush's victories. Although many conservative supporters of President Bush, such as Rush Limbaugh and Jerry Falwell, have made some astoundingly impolitic statements even by Republican standards, it is unimaginable that conservative columnists or politicians would publicly disparage them or suggest that they did more harm than good. Republicans are not threatened by populist conservatives, they work with them. That is one of he reasons why they win.

A few weeks before the election, Time Magazine asked voters whether each candidate "stuck to their positions." Bush got the affirmative answer from 84 percent while Kerry got a "yes" from only 37 percent. Bush's most popular line on the campaign trail had nothing to do with Hollywood, it was "You may not always agree with what I do, but you will always know where I stand." Until the Democrats produce candidates who can say that and be believed, tens of millions of American progressives will be forced to turn to Michael Moore and anyone else who stands up for a modern, moral progressive politics.


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