Politicians And Celebrities: The Long Complex Links Between Hollywood And Washington

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By Palash R. Ghosh | December 2, 2012 12:10 AM EST

Hollywood stars and Washington politicians have been linked to each other since the beginnings of the celebrity culture that has so defined the 20th century and beyond. Although being seen with (or more importantly, receiving handsome donations from) movie and music stars can add some dash, glamour and sex appeal to the otherwise dull, drab world of politics, celebrity links can be a double-edged sword.

Much of the public are tired of the celebrity culture that mass media relentlessly promote -- they are particularly cynical about multi-millionaires who act, sing and dance professing knowledge about social issues and foreign policy.

In the recent presidential election, Barack Obama attracted widespread support (and money) from celebrities, making him the toast of Hollywood. That scenario has renewed criticisms that the film industry is “too liberal,” but this wasn’t always the case. Indeed, before the 1960s, Hollywood was actually a bastion of reactionary conservatism.

International Business Times spoke with an expert on mass media to discuss Hollywood’s long links with big-time politics.

Dr. Lance Strate is Director of the Professional Studies in New Media Program at Fordham University in New York.

IB TIMES: In the recent presidential election, much was made about the tremendous support (and campaign donations) Obama received from the well-heeled Hollywood community. Celebrities like Matt Damon, George Clooney, Alec Baldwin, Spike Lee, Eva Longoria, Michael Moore and many others are outspoken about their political views. Is this a relatively recent phenomenon – or have Hollywood and Washington always been linked?

STRATE: Celebrity culture has its origins in the 20th century, and it has evolved along with innovations in media and communications technology.

It's largely been the influence of television that has blurred the boundaries between entertainment and politics, beginning in the 1960s, and increasing over the past half century.

But it's not just Hollywood; it's also recording artists such as Bruce Springsteen and Meatloaf, and athletes such as Derek Jeter and Lebron James. Historian Daniel Boorstin defined a celebrity as a person "known for his well-knowness," and fame -- which is a function of visibility via media such as television -- is the only objective indicator of authority and legitimacy generally recognized today, so it follows that celebrities gain the power to provide socially relevant and persuasive endorsements.

Of course, appearing on television, even if it is due to some level of talent in acting, singing, or playing ball, has no direct connection to expertise in evaluating a candidate's ability to serve, govern, or even their ideological coherence, so this ought to be viewed as detrimental to the democratic process.

IB TIMES: The popular conception now is that Hollywood is overwhelmingly liberal (excluding conservatives like Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, Kelsey Grammer and a few others). How long has this perception existed? Is it accurate?

STRATE: It's an old, old story, dating back to the silent movie era.

Certainly, Hollywood has been more international; take for example Charlie Chaplin who was English, and liberal enough to have been exiled during the Joseph McCarthy era, not to mention the many performers and filmmakers who fled Europe following the devastation of the First World War and the rise of fascism and Nazism.

And long before the Hollywood film colony and even the invention of the motion picture, actors were viewed as disreputable, morally questionable, libertine, and open to sexual promiscuity, homosexuality, etc., and therefore socially liberal, and Hollywood certainly followed this pattern.

Being more progressive, actors were more open to Communism than the mainstream of the United States, especially before the truth about repression in the Soviet Union became widely known in the mid- 20th century.

So there is certainly some basis to this view, but let's not forget that Ronald Reagan was a product of Hollywood, and the Reagan revolution shifted the United States in a more conservative direction than we had known since before Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Other prominent conservative entertainers-turned-politicians have included Sonny Bono, Shirley Temple, Eastwood, Fred Grandy, Fred Thompson, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

And then there's former football star Jack Kemp, and professional wrestling icon Jesse Ventura. And while the folks on the screen get all of the attention, let's not forget that there are studio heads, and presidents and CEOs of media corporations, who tend to favor the Republican party.

IB TIMES: When Oprah Winfrey endorsed Obama in 2008, she was widely criticized, particularly by her Republican fans. Oprah is probably too rich and powerful to be hurt by negative publicity, but generally speaking, does the public resent it when celebrities make political proclamations?

STRATE: I would just suggest, first, that Oprah can in fact be hurt by negative publicity, but she can easily withstand it. Generally, fans feel a strong sense of connection to the celebrities they admire, feel a sense of relationship and identification with them, and if a celebrity does something that goes against what the fan believes in, it create dissonance for the fan.

So, when a celebrity endorses a candidate that the fan does not favor, it may reduce the negative feeling the fan has towards that candidate, so in that sense celebrity endorsements can be effective, but it is likely to be balanced out by the fan feeling less positive towards the celebrity. You could call it ‘spending social capital’ if you like. But I don't think the public minds if celebrities endorse candidates they themselves favor.

And I think the public accepts that a celebrity, who has well established political views, a conservative like Eastwood for example, will endorse a candidate who matches those views, and it won't affect their own views of either the candidate or the celebrity. It's when the endorsement is unexpected that resentment is most likely.

As for celebrities doing something other than endorsing, that is, speaking out on the issues, they can be eloquent spokespersons, and when their remarks are properly scripted, I think most people accept them in that role. But when celebrities speak off the cuff, sounding simplistic or patronizing or doctrinaire, or just talk to an empty chair, then they are held up to ridicule, and resentment.

IB TIMES: During the 1930s and 1940s, under the tight control of movie studio bosses like Louie B. Mayer and Samuel Goldwyn, ‘liberals’ in Hollywood were castigated as ‘Communists’ (something that would have grave consequences under McCarthy in the 1950s).

So, in those long-ago days, were Hollywood liberals stifled, while prominent conservatives like John Wayne and Gary Cooper ruled the roost?

STRATE: During the 1930s and 1940s, political views were largely a private affair, which is why informants were needed, to identify which actors, writers, directors, etc., sympathized with the Communist party, or had any leftist connections. Ronald Reagan was an FBI informant, and also became head of the Screen Actors Guild, leading the effort to identify "un-American" members of his profession, and cooperating with the blacklisting effort associated with McCarthyism -- this was really the beginning of his entry into politics. So Reagan definitely was a powerful figure in the post-WWII/early Cold War era of the late 1940s and 1950s.

John Wayne was certainly an icon of the Republican party, but not an activist like Reagan, and neither was Gary Cooper, who would not name names when testifying before Congress.

IB TIMES: Two prominent Republican presidents from California, Richard Nixon and Reagan, both enjoyed the loud support of many Hollywood celebrities. Were they criticized for this the way Democrats Bill Clinton and Obama have been?

STRATE: No, although there was some degree of mocking of John Wayne within the counterculture. But in Nixon's day, celebrity endorsements were minimal and low-key, and they still were for Reagan.  Reagan had an added motivation not to seek out Hollywood endorsements, because circa 1980 it was still seen as questionable to have an actor running for president, so in order to bolster his image as a serious candidate he needed to minimize his connections to the entertainment industry.

IB TIMES: John F. Kennedy appeared to be a unique case – as a handsome, wealthy playboy and due to his father’s connections; he was deeply linked to Hollywood long before he entered the White House. During the 1960 campaign, his glamour and charisma attracted many stars, notably Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe. Did this rankle the public, or did they simply accept that his affluent lifestyle included relations with celebrities?

STRATE: JFK's connections were inherited from his father, and they did represent a departure from the past, but that fit in with his image as a youthful, and telegenic (a new phenomenon) president.

But it's also true that Hollywood reached the peak of its popularity during the mid-20th century, and it was often remarked that movie stars were for American society what royalty was for European nations.

So for Kennedy, hobnobbing with the entertainment elite was not inconsistent with his own status as part of socioeconomic elite now risen to political power.  The stars of the silver screen were larger than life, but television was about to cut them down to size, so that today a president going on a late night talk show to speak to Jay Leno or David Letterman would hardly be seen as glamorous.

IB TIMES: During the McCarthy-Communist witch-hunt period, a lot of anti-Semitism seemed to be directed at Hollywood (the ‘Hollywood Ten,’ for example, were almost all Jewish). Do you think anti-Semitism influences the prevailing view – even today – that Hollywood is “too liberal?”

STRATE: Yes, it most certainly does. Jewish-Americans have tended to support the Democratic party, and otherwise tend to be more liberal than the mainstream, and better represented than the mainstream in leftist circles. Jewish-Americans also had strong involvement with the Hollywood film industry, although the Jewish movie moguls tended to be more conservative and Republican, which is typical of captains of industry and the wealthy in general.

Certainly, anti-Semitism played a role in the McCarthy witch-hunts and other attacks on the film industry, and continued in the form of that longstanding absurd claim that the Jews control the media.

IB TIMES: One of the biggest film stars ever, Marlon Brando, was heavily involved in left-wing political activism during the 1960s and early 1970s. Did this hurt his career or was he just viewed as a crackpot?

STRATE: Brando was such a big star, so well regarded, that it did not affect him to any great extent, and he also was generally excused for being eccentric.

Of course, the famous incident where he refused to accept the Oscar for his role in The Godfather in 1973, and sent [the fake ‘Indian’ actress] Sacheen Littlefeather in his place to make a political speech about the portrayal of Native Americans in film is a much cited turning point in the American movie industry, and much satirized and mocked, I hasten to add.

But it does seem like this is the moment when Hollywood "jumped the shark" to use show business terminology, and liberal politics was shoved into the limelight, creating an association that has only become stronger with time. It didn't really hurt Brando himself, but it did hurt Hollywood.

IB TIMES: Although many black athletes endorsed and campaigned for Obama, athletes generally avoid any kind of political activism. Are they worried that such activities will hurt their outside commercial income?

STRATE: If commercial advertising is the basis of significant income, then yes, you do not want to alienate any portion of your audience, or the advertisers who might hire you to endorse products -- products are mostly presented as apolitical, the idea is to maximize sales.

For the most part, film actors and to a slightly lesser extent TV actors do not want to dilute or cheapen their image with advertising endorsements (except abroad where the domestic audience won't see them), so that sort of commercial income is not significant for entertainers.

But sports stars can lose large sums if they do any harm to their image, which can be on the account of immoral activities off the field (drug use, infidelity), or the perception that their achievements came about through unfair advantage (e.g., steroids). While political endorsements are not in the same category, they do take away from the athlete's image, and therefore will make them less valuable in regard to commercial endorsements.

Interestingly, this political reticence gives professional athletes a statesman-like image, and makes them all the more influential if and when they do engage in political endorsements or other forms of activism.

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