Actor Robert Walden has played a lot of parts in his career--from a sleazy Watergate figure to a crusading investigative reporter. But as far as he is concerned, one of his most important roles is a recurring one in the long-running political drama known as the Democratic National Convention.
Walden, who got his first taste of Big League politics while covering the 1980 convention on special assignment for a San Francisco newspaper, said he has discovered that celebrities have much to contribute and much to gain.
"Everyone has a different reason for going," Walden said. "But just about everyone wants to learn. When actors discover that they can make a difference with their presence, most of them want to take advantage of it."
This year, Walden is attending the quadrennial conclave as part of a 24-member celebrity corps organized by Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica).
In a recent letter to about 100 show business people, Hayden recalled his own convention experiences, including his stint as an anti-war protester at the 1968 Chicago convention, and urged others to join him at this year's event.
Bill Schulz, Hayden's spokesman, said those who attend the convention that begins Monday in Atlanta will receive a crash course in national politics and may ultimately be inspired to work for the Democratic slate of candidates.
"Our efforts have been aimed at getting people involved in the Democratic Party," Schulz said. "Our hope is that in the fall, their interest will be raised to such a level that they will become active in campaign events."
Other celebrities are expected to attend the convention independently. But Hayden's group, which also includes Lily Tomlin, Rebecca De Mornay, Rob Lowe, Rod Steiger, Morgan Fairchild, Charles Haid, Tom Hulce, Meg Ryan, Ally Sheedy, Justine Bateman, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jennifer Grey, Judd Nelson, Alexandra Paul, Mike Farrell and Shelley Fabares, is the largest contingent by far.
One thing those stars share, Schulz said, is a commitment to change.
"A lot of them have come of age during the term of Ronald Reagan," he said. "And no one has shown the relationship between the entertainment industry and politics better than Reagan."
Those participating in Hayden's field trip are affiliated with Network, a Santa Monica-based organization started by Hayden and his wife, actress Jane Fonda, which is dedicated to involving celebrities in the political process.
Network draws heavily from the sizable number of activist stars living on the Westside.
One of its first political tests came in 1986, when the group successfully campaigned for passage of Proposition 65, a statewide anti-toxics measure backed by Hayden.
Schulz said the assemblyman has since played host to several informal political gatherings for the group at his Santa Monica home.
In one instance, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, the probable Democratic presidential nominee, was scheduled to meet with the members, but was forced to back out because of a schedule conflict. On another occasion, about 75 Network supporters met at Hayden's to watch primary returns and discuss the results.
Schulz said those meetings naturally led up to the idea of organizing a sort of celebrity roadshow to attend the convention. Once the participants were lined up, Network arranged for their flights and accommodations and secured the credentials to give the stars limited access to the convention floor.
Schulz said he expects most of them to attend the daily breakfast-issue meetings held by Hayden, a Dukakis delegate. They will also be encouraged to sit in on caucuses, banquets and other convention activities, he said.
Those who eventually become active campaigners will join a long list of celebrities, Fonda being a prime example, who have played major roles in Democratic or Republican campaigns. And while celebrity involvement is no guarantee of political victory, party officials like having stars around.
Patricia Duff-Medavoy of the Hollywood Women's Political Committee and the Democratic National Committee said the party encourages star participation. In addition to drawing media attention to the drearier goings-on at conventions, they are often talented campaigners and fund-raisers, Duff-Medavoy said.
"They're handled somewhat analogous to the way we handle finance committee people," she said. "They're given certain amount of red carpet treatment."
Initiation into Politics
Many of those traveling with Hayden are coming of age politically and personally. For Sarah Jessica Parker of television's "A Year in the Life," the convention is an opportunity to witness the national political spectacle up close for the first time. It is also the 23-year-old actress' initiation into presidential politics. As a newcomer, Parker said she mostly hopes to learn.
"Watching a process like this and meeting the delegates--there was no way I could pass it up," she said. "I can't even tell you how excited I am. It's just amazing to me that I'll actually be there."
Though she comes from a politically and socially active family, Parker did not become involved in California politics until 1986, when Hayden and Fonda drafted her for the Proposition 65 campaign. Parker said that the two have convinced her and many of her peers that they have something to contribute.
"They have made us feel like there's no reason we shouldn't be doing this," Parker said. "And they have given us the opportunity."
Walden, an old pro compared to Parker and the other young stars traveling to the convention, said the younger generation is more committed than any he has seen recently. Hayden and Fonda have tapped into a group that is "thirsty" for knowledge and information and extremely energetic, Walden added.
The actor, who is perhaps best known for portraying reporter Joe Rossi on the "Lou Grant" television show, said most should profit from the convention experience, but he had words of wisdom for those who are accustomed to the spotlight.
"I'm sure everyone is hoping to have a good time," Walden said. "But they are in for a little bit of a surprise. . . . It's work, it's a task; it's a chore. It's not a party, because the stars at the convention are not necessarily the celebrities or even the candidates. The stars are the delegates."