Political Culture: Will Hollywood Matter in 2008?

Written by Current Events, Political Culture

“Who cares what I think? I’m not the president. I’m just a storyteller, man.”

So says Bob Dylan — or, at least, Cate Blanchett as Jude Quinn as Bob Dylan — in Todd Haynes’ wonderful, baffling film I’m Not There. But whether Quinn/Dylan’s dismissal is sincere, or just part of his circa ’65 scramble to negate every aspect of his public image, the question he poses is one with which artists and entertainers have been struggling for decades. Their celebrity brings access to cameras and microphones, but does it also bring the ability — or the responsibility — to influence political debates and even turn elections? Can actors and pop stars really change the world by speaking their minds? Should they bother trying? And, honestly, who cares what they think?

As the Endless Presidential Campaign calendar turns from 2007 to 2008–and is about to get very rushed indeed, beginning today in Iowa–that many-headed hydra conservatives like to call “Hollywood” has insinuated itself into the political realm once again. Celebs and moguls are divvying up endorsements and cash so enthusiastically you’d think they were campaigning for something important, like Oscars, rather than a future leader of the free world. Oprah’s blanketing the early primary states for Obama, Rob Reiner’s making Internet spots for Hillary — heck, even Chuck Norris seems intent on swinging the has-been chop-socky vigilante vote to Huckabee! Meanwhile, Bruce Springsteen is prowling America’s concert stages and talking more like the candidate he isn’t than the rock god he is, and Hollywood’s parade of antiwar, anti-Bush films continues unabated, each one running into the same buzzsaw of bad reviews and public indifference.

OK, I don’t know if public indifference qualifies as a “buzzsaw,” but the question remains: Does any of this activity make a difference? Can a celebrity — no matter how knowledgeable or well-spoken — bring voters to a candidate the way Oprah can put a novel on the bestseller list? On one level — the one that begins with a dollar sign — the answer is certainly yes; front-running Democratic candidates traditionally can count on receiving nice piles of cash from the 90210 and surrounding Zip codes, and they rely on showbiz largesse to counter the steady flow of money that Republicans get from Wall Street and the Texas oil barons. But in terms of imparting a message that can move millions of ordinary Americans, the prospects are murky at best.

Decision ’92: From Hope To Hollywood. On the one hand: Think back, if you will, to the evening of January 20, 1993. On network TV, dozens of the biggest stars of screens large and small are cavorting in tuxedos and evening gowns, toasting their success and heralding a new era. The Golden Globes, perchance? No, hold on a tick — dig a little deeper into the memory bank — there’s Ted Kennedy! And Tip O’Neill! And…that guy from Illinois with the bowties! Meanwhile, over on MTV, Michael Stipe and Natalie Merchant are crooning “To Sir With Love” (download) and finally proving they (or at least their dancing shoes) were separated at birth with a rollicking rendition of 10,000 Maniacs’ “Candy Everybody Wants.”

[kml_flashembed movie="http://youtube.com/v/9ypkQhbaFcU" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

And there’s Stipe again, with Mike Mills and the U2 rhythm section, calling themselves “Automatic Baby” and ripping into an acoustic “One.” Check out the first split-second of the vid clip. That guy with all the hair, introducing them. Is that…Dennis Miller?

[kml_flashembed movie="http://youtube.com/v/A6P2jy_dzkM" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

As far as the entertainment industry was concerned — and as Don Henley (channeling Leonard Cohen) sang it later that same evening — democracy was coming to the USA. Bill Clinton had triumphed, 12 long years of Republican rule had been swept away, and Hollywood felt it had played a starring role. From Clinton’s sax-blowing breakout on Arsenio Hall to “Boxers or Briefs?”; from Barbra’s glittering Malibu fundraiser to Madonna’s infernal Rock the Vote commercials; from Dana Carvey’s whimpering “please don’t make me a one-termer” to Viacom’s “MTV Rock’n’Roll Inaugural Ball” (an event no media conglomerate has since managed to duplicate for a Republican president) — the popular culture had ganged up on George Bush, and now Bush was gone. Hooray for Hollywood, right?

Indecision ’04: The Backlash

Now, scrub all that from your memory, and recall the events of just four years ago. (If you’re like me you’ve been repressing, so c’mon, let’s all join hands for a cleansing Primal Scream and unblock.) Every week in 2004 the publishing industry unveiled another 500-page tome by another military analyst, Former Administration Official, muckraking journalist or TV talking head, all describing how another guy named George Bush had fucked up everything he ever touched. A bunch of lefties, including actor/comedians Al Franken and Janeane Garofalo, ramped up a progressive talk-radio network to combat the bullshit spewing in torrents elsewhere on the AM dial. A snarky little anti-Bush film directed by some nondescript guy in a baseball cap became the highest-grossing documentary film of all time.

[kml_flashembed movie="http://youtube.com/v/4odmtUBtfeU" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

And that fall, from Seattle to Miami — and all over Ohio — pop stars from Bruce and Bonnie to Dave Matthews, Michael Stipe (again) and the vilified Dixie Chicks (download) spent the month of October playing concerts on the Vote For Change tour. They drew huge crowds at 37 gigs in battleground states, and raised nearly $10 million for a progressive get-out-the-vote coalition fronted by MoveOn.org. (“Take a real close look at both of the candidates,” James Taylor famously said during his concerts with the Chicks, “and then vote for the smart one.”)

Once again, the popular culture had lined up like a firing squad against a sitting president named Bush. But this time, Bush received the highest vote total of any presidential candidate in history (to be fair, John Kerry’s was the second-highest), and was swept back into office with the ferocity of, say, Hurricane Katrina. So, what gives?

For one thing, Michael Stipe was a lot older, and considerably weirder, and Dennis Miller had switched sides. But for another, the political culture of 2004 was profoundly different from that of 1992. With the dramatic increase in partisanship that attended the Clinton and Bush presidencies, the rise of Fox News and the ritual bashing of the mainstream news media from the right, conservatives and liberals alike had long since circled their wagons and begun talking past the other. Dubya and Karl Rove (brilliantly, as it turned out) chose to neglect the political center and instead pushed hard to get every committed conservative to the polls.

In that context, left-wing entertainers found themselves preaching to the converted as much as Bush did. Fahrenheit 9/11 may have earned over $100 million, but how many Republicans saw it? Vote For Change may have sold more than 300,000 tickets, but how many of those concertgoers had their minds changed — or even had them open in the first place? In retrospect, there’s a huge difference between box-office receipts and political success, and in the end not a single state shifted away from the candidate favored in pre-VFC polls. Maybe if some of the VFC performers had spent Election Day working those overcrowded polling places in Ohio’s cities…

Whither ’08?

How this history anticipates 2008 is an open question. One thing’s virtually certain: The Democrats will be running a candidate whose victory would be historic, the kind of history Hollywood loves to get behind. Whether the nominee is Hillary (probably) or Obama (hopefully), expect the showbiz world to put on a full-court press — at the convention, in every battleground state, all over your TV set. The nominee likely will be treated as much like a rock star as a candidate for office — and, from the looks of things so far, she or he will bask happily in Hollywood’s glitz and glamour.

But will that reflected glow help them — or will it hurt? A lot depends on the character of the Republican nominee, of course. (Rudy Giuliani, for example, is most likely to run the kind of take-no-prisoners, vote-for-me-or-be-killed-by-terrorists campaign we’ve come to expect from the GOP. Ironically, Rudy is by any reasonable definition a celebrity in his own right, known more for his 9/11 speechifying, his Yankees-cap wearing, his cross-dressing and his wife-swapping than for anything he’s actually accomplished in his political life.)

No matter who gets the GOP nod, if Hillary is the Democratic nominee the deluge of Hollywood endorsements may contribute to a sense of inevitability surrounding her. On the other hand, her showbiz connections certainly will be folded into the Republicans’ warnings of a return to Clintonian decadence and loose morals. Obama would be tougher to caricature, and Hollywood’s affection for him likely would play into his growing stature as the African-American Atticus Finch. The danger is that Republicans — particularly if they wise up and nominate a truly seasoned candidate like John McCain — might successfully transform Obama’s image into that of a crossover lightweight, the Lionel Richie of politics.

If you’re a good Democrat you’re cringing right now, just as I cringed when I wrote that. “OMG, some wingnut Republican will spot that quote and Obama will forever be Lionel Richie!” Ever since “angry white men” propelled the Republican Revolution of 1994, Democrats have tiptoed around during election season, afraid to arouse all those nasty conservative passions — afraid to offer up any “red meat.” (Does it make Republicans feel good and pious and patriotic to be compared to ravenous pit bulls? I’ve always wondered.)

Gay marriage, arguably, was the red meat that drove conservatives to the polls in 2004; might showbiz’s embrace backfire on the Democrats in similar fashion this year? Or, in a year of celebrity candidates and the potential for historic transformation, will Election ’08 play out like an Aaron Sorkin script? Stay tuned — the answer is sure to come in the form of a full-blown Hollywood production.