Hollywood and Washington: Parties for the Party

<i> Ronald Brownstein covers politics and the White House for the National Journal</i>

Not Edward M. Kennedy, not Walter F. Mondale, not Gary Hart--no one in recent memory has raised as much money at one time for the Democratic Party as Barbra Streisand did last weekend at her Malibu ranch.

You can quibble. The Democratic National Committee’s last two gala dinners in Washington both collected nearly as much as the $1.5 million Streisand took in for her performance before 500 heavy hitters on behalf of the Hollywood Women’s Political Committee, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and five appreciative Democratic Senate candidates. Yet it’s hard to remember a Democratic fund-raising event attracting as much attention.

This says something about the way the Democratic Party raises money, something about how Hollywood works, and quite a bit about how the two interact--which they do, all the time.

Hollywood has always dabbled in politics. Industry leaders such as Lew Wasserman, the chairman of MCA, and Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, are familiar faces in Washington political circles. But deeper involvement throughout the entertainment community seems to run in waves. Right now, surf’s up.


The first exhibit could be the Hollywood Women’s Political Committee itself, a group of women from the movie industry who conceived and carried off the Streisand event in the face of considerable skepticism from Democratic Party professionals. After the Democrats nominated Geraldine A. Ferraro for vice president in 1984, the organization was put together by a handful of liberal women activists, among them producer Paula Weinstein, songwriter Marilyn Bergman, Columbia Pictures Television President Barbara Corday and attorneys Susan Grode and Bonnie Reiss.

Working through contacts in the entertainment world, the group organized a program (Warren Beatty, Lily Tomlin, Neil Diamond) and sold about half the tickets for a $750,000 October, 1984, Mondale-Ferraro fund-raiser.

Before the Streisand event, the committee was still finding its legs. Members of the group co-sponsored a few events for Democratic Senate hopefuls, and the group did put on a fund-raiser last fall for the Democratic Senate Committee. But through the first 18 months of this election cycle, the committee had only raised about $75,000 and given just $13,500 to candidates. Until last weekend, political fund-raisers talked about the HWPC mostly in terms of potential.

Now the Streisand event has given the women an instant national reputation--and demonstrated again the ability of well-connected people in the entertainment industry to produce immense sums of political money. The Hollywood group had access to people who could afford the $2,500-a-head ticket price--and they had a spectacular product to offer.


“The women’s committee was able to capitalize on something the party entities haven’t done too well--a national interest among some of the Democratic donor base toward taking the Senate over, and they did it in a very attractive way with entertainment,” said Timothy Finchem, chief fund-raiser for Mondale in 1984 and Carter in 1980. “So they caught the wave at the right time.”

As a political event, Streisand’s concert was unique. But the basic ingredients rounded up at her ranch--stars, politicians and people with lots of money--are assembled just about every night of the week somewhere in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles is probably the most important city in the country for Democratic fund-raising--you can make an argument for New York, too--and the activism of the Hollywood community is one of the major reasons. There’s Republican money in Hollywood too, but there’s Republican money just about everywhere. For Democrats, Hollywood offers something special: people with lots of money who are unabashedly liberal.

Hollywood players get into politics mostly for one of two reasons. It’s true that right now it is stylish for celebrities to “be political.” But as knowing Washingtonians usually admit when they’re through snickering, show business contains an unusually large concentration of people passionately (even innocently) concerned about issues--particularly the arms race, foreign policy and the environment. “Our group is more issue-bound than party-bound,” said the HWPC treasurer, attorney Reiss. She could have been speaking for Hollywood in general. It is easier to line up stars behind causes--the nuclear freeze campaign or Proposition 65, the ballot measure to control toxic pollution--than behind candidates.


The second principal motivation for raising funds, present more among the studio executives than the stars they employ, is the reality that movie-making and record-producing are big businesses, with plenty at stake in the deliberations of Washington. “There is a growing sense of what Washington means to the movie industry,” said one studio executive.

Those two arguments--idealism and good business--largely explain why Hollywood likes politicians. Why politicians like Hollywood is another story.

It’s not the checks that the stars write; it’s their physical, live-in-your-living-room presence that matters--for it gives Hollywood political fund-raising an unmatched social cachet. Los Angeles is the only place in America where the people attending fund-raisers are a bigger draw than the candidates being honored. And that can boost the bottom line, a lot.

Politics is where money and celebrity intersect in Los Angeles. This is crucial. In Washington, a young, successful person with money doesn’t believe he has really made it until he is invited to parties with politicians. In Los Angeles, a young, successful person thinks he hasn’t arrived until he can mingle with the movie crowd.


Hollywood invitations can be tough to come by except through one door: politics. At political fund-raisers, young lawyers and developers can sip spritzers with celebrities they wouldn’t meet if they camped out in front of the studios for a year. As one young Democratic fund-raiser put it: “I have dinner and contacts and play tennis regularly with people in the Hollywood community that most people even in the community would cut off an arm to be with.”

Politicians like to be around celebrities for another reason: They attract media.

Bringing in celebrities to campaign can be a close call for candidates, because it can make them look glitzy and unsubstantial to some voters. But for causes, celebrities are great. Later this month, the campaign for Proposition 65 is sending a caravan of major movie stars on a three-day bus tour across California to raise money and visibility for their cause. They are sure to draw more media than a busload of biochemists from Berkeley.

It’s easy, and not always unfair, to dismiss actors and actresses who help these causes and candidates as shallow opportunists. But it’s worth remembering that giving even an afternoon on a bus to an anti-toxics campaign is a more serious civic commitment than most of us ever make. When was the last time you offered to host a party for 500 at your house?