Hollywood and Democrats: an Embrace That Only Looks Glamorous

Andrew Kopkind is an associate editor of the Nation, from which this article is adapted.

Fund-raising has obviously replaced vote-getting, constituency-serving and legislating as the principal activity of politicians. The liberals especially all ride the circuit around L.A. because this is where the money is. "Our biggest cash crop," a young Gary Hart operative told me, "is cash."

The ranking overseer of the Westside circuit is Stanley Sheinbaum, like Norman Lear a founder and survivor of the Malibu Mafia (which is not Italian nor lives in that beach community, but the alliterative name sticks). In its heyday in the early 1970s, the Malibu Mafia promoted a variety of progressive candidates and causes around the country. But history, middle age, community property and federal campaign reform legislation have taken their toll, and the godfathers and their families are scattered or retired.

Sheinbaum, though, is still a powerful arbiter of political styles in this part of the country. He has earned a reputation as a man who can make things happen.

What he made happen, or at least made possible, last month in Los Angeles was an amusing event of historic proportions: the one-week rise and fall of Mario Cuomo's national campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

All during the fall, Cuomo had been looking for a good excuse and an appropriate vehicle to play the liberal L.A. circuit: something worthy in its own right, not too "political," noncontroversial. The Center for Law in the Public Interest banquet at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion seemed just fine. At the last minute, he accepted Sheinbaum's invitation.

Cuomo was trying to make a myth, to create a role for himself as a savior of his party, a man of principle rather than ambition, of intellect rather than opportunism. Cuomo was not simply traipsing across the country to raise money for law firms he'd never heard of and celebrate the retirement of dignitaries he'd never met. The governor's shadowy "people" in New York let it out that the excursion to L.A. was the first of four this year to "test the waters" for a presidential campaign.

In the face of all the excitement about Cuomo's candidacy, the non-candidate was adamant, even arrogant, about his intentions. He swept into the pavilion trailing a cloud of reporters, camera operators and news readers from New York and other points east. He was alternately coy and brusque in discussing his political purposes, and sometimes curiously opaque. Tom Hayden, who knows a lot about self-creation, had the best line for Cuomo: "He's very Zen. He runs by not running. In fact, he creates demand by reducing supply. It's Zen Machiavelianism."

Later, at the pre-dinner reception for big contributors and cloutish Democrats, Cuomo nastily contradicted Sheinbaum's generous introduction of him as "the most exciting political figure" in the land. "I am not here as a politician," Cuomo scolded his host, to low gasps from the crowd.

But the big bomb was reserved for the postprandial address to an audience that represented a sizable chunk of Democratic energy, activism and enthusiasm in Southern California. Cuomo could have had the group if he wanted it. Hart has his large base here, and Joe Biden seems to have found a niche, but only Cuomo might command the throng the way a Ted Kennedy could. But something was terribly, terribly wrong. After a few nimble wisecracks about the "Italian thing," Cuomo seemed to drift off into a lazy, empty soliloquy. The cliche was the message.

The worst part was the long, cadenced peroration, which Cuomo took word for word from his second inaugural address, given two months earlier in Albany. Setting the scene with a nostalgic reminiscence of the Statue of Liberty, Cuomo apostrophized, "Lift your lamp, Lady!" for the lonely and friendless, the brothers and sisters, the farm families and factory workers, even the privileged--you name it, he gave it a lift of the lamp. My table companion, a woman I had slogged through the 1960s with and hadn't seen in 15 years, couldn't bear to look at the speaker. "This is so embarrassing," she said, shaking her head and staring at her toes. "I'm so depressed."

Cuomo had rejected the advice of those who knew the L.A. circuit that he give a "substantive" speech, one that would not only place him in a political context but also give his audience something to work for in the months ahead.

The perfunctory applause at the end of the speech had hardly died when Cuomo's candidacy, such as it ever was, was suddenly dead. "Live by the speech, die by the speech," a man across the table said cruelly. "I thought the speech was patronizing," someone else said. "The reaction at my table . . . was 'Ronald Reagan could have given that speech.' "

Mickey Kantor, a perennial power in party politics, and a partner in the firm headed by former Democratic National Committee chair Charles Manatt, reflected that "the problem with playing hard to get is that you get very few opportunities to impress people, so it is taking a big chance when you come out of the chute." The unkindest cut, if not the deepest, was ascribed to Sheinbaum, who had coaxed Cuomo out of the chute. "Disappointing," Sheinbaum told the Los Angeles Times, which carried his quote above its bad review of Cuomo's appearance. And on the following Sunday, when the New York Times finally got around to breaking the news to its readers, Sheinbaum got the last word: "Cuomo made . . . a major error . . . He cannot continue not to discuss political issues."

It seemed clear to the L.A. circuit that Cuomo had tested the waters, recoiled and decided to pull out of the race he had never officially entered.

L.A. is used to flops--it might be said the city feeds on them--and there are always new productions in development. Bill Bradley was in town the day after Cuomo, at the $1,500-per-couple fund-raiser in a tent at the home of Michael Eisner, chief executive officer of Disney Studios. The co-host was Michael Ovitz, a semi-superagent who, people say, wants a studio of his own and who may see political activity as a way to adorn his stature as a powerhouse on the local scene. Ovitz prevailed on his clients and professional debtors to turn out for Bradley, and he even got Whoopi Goldberg to entertain the tented guests.

But the day started poorly for the Bradley project when the morning "trade," Daily Variety, appeared with a full-page "open letter" attacking Bradley for his Senate vote to give $100 million to the Nicaraguan contras . The page was paid for by the Hollywood Women's Political Committee, the hottest organization of activists and fund-raisers in the neighborhood and a source of consternation to older (male) centers of power.

Some call the HWPC too leftish; some say it's too feminist, too strident, too ideological, too ardent, about its issues. Several cynics pointed out to me that its members don't have "real" money, only fat salaries, and some are practically impoverished, by industry standards. In Hollywood, "production" jobs--even presidencies of production at big studios--are of a distinctly lower caste than ownership positions. Hollywood reads Marx, and I don't mean Groucho. Equity and salary have vastly different social consequences.

Unfortunately for the owners, however, the salaried women are standing history on its head. Last summer the HWPC organized the fabulous (and private) Barbra Streisand concert, held on her estate, and raised nearly $3 million (counting the video sale) for liberal senatorial candidates throughout the country. In a city where money comes out of guilt or self-interest, HWPC contributions are politically motivated and determined. The letter to Bradley was brazen and effective. It soured the senator's appearance and helped counter the boomlet for his candidacy, which threatens to erupt on a day when the news is slow.

So many candidates are down here that it looks like up for Joe Biden. He has cultivated the Israel lobby--that is, the specifically Israel lobby, since most of the Democratic money in Los Angeles has Jewish connections. The excessively chauvinistic American-Israel Public Affairs Committee gave Biden a forum here in January; he has clearly found a way to organize a base within a base at a time when most of the candidates agree on most of the issues.

His biggest support, however, comes from the Marshall Field fortune, which is gentile money personified. Scion Ted Field is trying to make Biden happen, despite the hostility of Sheinbaum and Lear.

One name you don't hear very much out here is Jesse Jackson. It's not only that Los Angeles seems to be the most segregated city in the country. Neither color nor class is in the forefront of political discussion. In liberal Democratic terms that's a scandal.

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