We gave it an A-
In the past 10 years, we have seen an actor become president — and a host of would-be presidents try to master the techniques of acting. We have grown accustomed to Hollywood stars jetting around the country, adding luster to otherwise dull campaigns — in 1988, Arnold Schwarzenegger pumped hands for George Bush, while Robert Redford tried, without notable success, to make his fans warm up to Michael Dukakis. At the same time, Hollywood has emerged as a key fund-raising stop, particularly for cash-starved Democrats. On almost any day of the week, some high-ranking politician is making a pitch somewhere in Bel-Air or Brentwood.
Welcome to the world of sound-bite democracy. With costly media campaigning on the rise and the public’s attention span shrinking, the line between politics and show business is hard to draw — and Hollywood’s clout is hard to ignore.
A national political correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, Ronald Brownstein takes the long view of celebrity politics. He examines the first stirrings of political Hollywood in the 1930s, describes the heyday of the Communist Party in the 1940s, and explains how the town’s infatuation with politics is modeled on Frank Sinatra’s mythic friendship with John F. Kennedy. That ”apparently easy and casual association,” he writes, ”suggested new rewards at the pinnacle of American life, adding forever to fame’s appeal a proximity to power, and to power’s allure a proximity to fame.”
For politicians, Hollywood offers an unrivaled concentration of rich contributors who are also cultural icons. For the stars themselves, on the other hand, the closeness to politicians validates their often fragile sense of seriousness: As Brownstein puts it, the political connection offers ”a way of saying, ‘I’m rich, I’m powerful, I’m important, and you know what, I’m a good person too. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t have Ted Kennedy in my living room.”
As such passages suggest, Brownstein approaches his subject with skepticism. He argues that Hollywood’s power is in many ways no different from that held by other political interest groups, from big business to trade unions. At the same time, his nuanced profiles of Redford and Warren Beatty reveal thoughtful people, with complicated feelings about their political roles.
”Hollywood has not trivialized American politics,” Brownstein concludes. ”Politicians, their consultants, the disengaged public, and the inexorable demands of television for abbreviated debate have trivialized American politics.” In the meantime, celebrities will continue to exercise undue influence. For in our star-struck culture, ”to be famous is to have a public voice.” And to have a public voice is, in any culture, to wield a kind of political power. A-