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Ron Brownstein Tells Why Stars and Pols Pant for Each Other

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“Hollywood is the capital of glamour, and Washington is the capital of power; they just naturally find each other because they are two centers of our culture,” says Ronald Brownstein, who has keenly observed this cross-continental mating dance from the vantage points of both partners. Brownstein, 32, began covering politics in Washington, D.C., as a correspondent for the National Journal in 1983. Since 1987 he has lived in Los Angeles, where he is a national political correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. In The Power and the Glitter, published last month, Brownstein charts the evolution of the “Hollywood-Washington connection” from the 1920s to the present. His book appears at a moment when many celebrities are busy illustrating his point. The issue of the gulf war, for instance, has been taken up by stars including Ed Asner, Mike Farrell, Charlton Heston and, most outspokenly, by Margot Kidder. A former chief staff writer for Ralph Nader, and co-author, with his wife, journalist Nina Easton, of Reagan’s Ruling Class: Portraits of the President’s Top 100 Officials, Brownstein spoke with associate editor Kristin McMurran about the mutual fascination that has changed the style of American politics.

How do you explain the attraction between Hollywood and Washington?

People in one culture desire to be accepted as part of the other because it reaffirms their position at the pinnacle of American life. One reward of political power is proximity to the most glamorous people in the country. And part of the lure of being famous is that you may get to hobnob with the President.

What is Hollywood’s attraction for the politically powerful?

Politicians look to Hollywood as a place to raise large sums of money and to validate their membership in the community of fame.

Why are celebrities drawn to politics?

Celebrities look to Washington as a way of validating themselves as part of the company of serious men and women. It’s a way of saying, “Yes, I’m committed to something, even if it doesn’t always show up in my work.” Others see it as a way to use fame toward their own ends. Marlon Brando was one of the first stars to recognize that he could make politics work for him by focusing attention on his advocacy of American Indian rights.

In the ’60s Jane Fonda tried that tactic, and it flopped. Why?

The fact that you are famous does not liberate you from the obligation to think clearly. Jane Fonda failed to do that on many key points, most prominently by confusing opposition to the war in Vietnam with opposition to the soldiers fighting it and by defending the North Vietnamese against charges of torture made by returning POWs.

Do famous faces influence voters?

There’s no evidence that a segment of people will change their votes because of Charlton Heston’s opinion. But today politics is fought through the media, and celebrities help causes, and candidates get their 15 seconds on the evening news.

Can you cite a case where Hollywood has helped a candidate?

In 1968 Paul Newman campaigned tirelessly for the then-not-well-known Eugene McCarthy at a time when many party leaders thought the candidate was crazy. Newman was able to draw crowds and legitimize the campaign. In the early days before the Iowa primary in 1988, hordes of reporters were following Michael Dukakis from door to door long before he could generate a horde. Why? Because Richard Gere was with him.

Do you see any danger in these liaisons?

For politicians the risk is that of appearing too attracted to Hollywood’s indulgent lifestyle. No candidate received more practical help from Hollywood than Gary Hart, but on a symbolic level it could not have been more damaging to him. The mere fact of Hart’s friendship with Warren Beatty underlined all the rumors about whether Hart was willing to abide by the rules of conduct expected of a presidential candidate. And, of course, with Donna Rice we found out that he wasn’t.

How did the relationship between Hollywood and Washington evolve?

The first generation of Hollywood activists were the moguls who founded the studios in the 1920s. They were immigrant Jews mostly, not well educated, not accepted in Los Angeles society. One of the ways they tried to find acceptance was through politics. Louis B. Mayer, who was head of MGM, was very proud of his friendship with Herbert Hoover.

When did the stars first get involved?

During Franklin Roosevelt’s administration. In his last campaign, in 1944, stars were so visible that the final Democratic radio appeal was orchestrated by Hollywood figures, and Roosevelt himself, in his final campaign appearance, stumped in Boston with Orson Welles and Frank Sinatra.

What impact did JFK have on Hollywood?

Kennedy came along after the gray administrations of Truman and Eisenhower. Though Kennedy’s political use of Hollywood was quite modest, his relationships with Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe, among others, restored the idea that stars had a place in the political world. Ultimately, of course, he was forced to sever his relationship with Sinatra as evidence accumulated of Sinatra’s ties with mobsters.

How does a star connect with a cause?

In 1986 Barbra Streisand became very concerned about nuclear issues after the Chernobyl explosion. Her friend Marilyn Bergman, the lyricist and an important player in the Hollywood Women’s Political Committee, arranged a series of private meetings at which Streisand was brought up to speed by prominent nuclear scientists and arms-control experts. Shortly after that, Streisand performed a rare concert in her backyard, and in a single evening raised $1.5 million for Democratic Senate candidates committed to arms control.

How does a young politician get Hollywood’s attention?

First you have to find an angel, someone who has credibility in the money community or the film community. The benefits are reciprocal. One of the ways people advance themselves in Hollywood is by the quality of the people they sponsor. And if you’re a freshman Senator, you’re probably not going to get a senior studio executive to champion your cause, so you have to find the younger people who will grow with you.

For example?

Take Bill Bradley. As an aspiring politician in the 1970s, he made friends with a young Paramount executive, Michael Eisner, who was a big New York Knicks fan, and both men grew up to bigger and better things: Bradley to the Senate and Eisner to the top post at Disney. In 1988 Eisner introduced Bradley to his good friend Michael Ovitz, chief of Creative Artists Management, and together they introduced Bradley to their good friends: everybody else who runs Hollywood. Bradley came out for a party and raised $600,000, probably the most any out-of-state Senator has raised in one night here. Bradley had the right angels.

Where is this kinship between the power and the glitter headed?

After 70 years of interacting with Washington, celebrities and studio chiefs have a growing sense of power and a diminishing deference to politicians. In the ’90s we are going to see more celebrities bypassing the candidates and joining organizations that systematically advance political agendas through the media, say by insinuating an environmental message into a TV show like thirtysomething or Murphy Brown. Hollywood is moving toward a greater political involvement than we’ve seen even over the last quarter century.