It's too early in the presidential race to dub any Democratic hopeful the "Hollywood candidate," but Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton appeared to retain strong backing among entertainment industry activists this week following his denial of accusations of adultery, first carried by a tabloid newspaper.
In a community where keyhole journalism is often the source of anguish and lawsuits, even supporters of other popular Democratic candidates, such as Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin and Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, expressed sympathy for Clinton over the allegations carried in the Star.
The incident came at a crucial time. With the year's first presidential primary only 18 days away in New Hampshire, Hollywood Democrats are busy lining up behind their favorite candidates, bringing substantial financial clout and--probably, more important--the aura of star power to the favored camps. Fund-raising parties and meet-and-greet sessions have been taking place from the Valley to Bel-Air.
And recently, Clinton appeared to be picking up support among filmdom's elite. By week's end, indications were that despite the tabloid-inspired uproar the Arkansas governor's star had retained much of its luster in a community that is particularly sensitive to personal intrusions.
Danny Goldberg, president of Gold Mountain Entertainment and a Harkin backer, said the incident may cause some Democrats to "re-evaluate their perception that the nomination of Clinton was a fait accompli ," but he added: "I think tabloids have a much lower image among people in entertainment than in any other business."
Goldberg, whose company represents music industry clients including Bonnie Raitt and Nirvana, noted: "Some of my own clients have filed lawsuits against the Star."
Even Kerrey's financial chairman, Bob Burkett--who lent his Cheviot Hills home for an Oct. 23 fund raiser for Kerrey hosted by Sally Field--said testily: "I think there's no room in this campaign for tabloid journalism . . . he (Clinton) is getting a raw deal."
From Clinton's own camp came vows of continued support.
"My sense is, if we're going to judge every candidate to the presidency by some prurient standard, I don't think anybody's going to go into politics," said TriStar Pictures Chairman Mike Medavoy.
The Star's accusations against Clinton came from Gennifer Flowers, 42, a former television reporter and sometime nightclub singer who also was a receptionist at the Arkansas unemployment appeals board. Flowers, who was fired from her state job earlier this week after failing to report to work, said she had been involved in a 12-year affair with Clinton. The Star paid an undisclosed sum for the story and held a news conference for Flowers, who played tapes she said were of telephone conversations she had with Clinton.
Clinton categorically denied the charges. He and his wife, Hillary, appeared on a special "60 Minutes" segment on Super Bowl Sunday to refute Flowers' claims, at the same time acknowledging past marital problems, which, they said, were nobody's business.
Producer Dawn Steel, who backed Kerrey early on in the Democratic campaign, has become an avid Clinton supporter since meeting the Arkansas governor on a social visit to the Medavoy home in mid-October. Steel said the recent events will in no way persuade her to return to Kerrey. "If we keep trying to disqualify our candidates for human behavior, we will have no candidates left," she said.
Steel added that she was encouraged by public praise for Clinton on the radio and TV talk shows after his Sunday appearance with his wife on "60 Minutes." "I thought it took enormous courage to go as far as he did; he told us more than we were entitled to know," she said.
"I don't care if he had an affair--I don't think it is an indication of how well he can run our country," Steel continued. "If you had told me he had harassed a woman in a job, or if you told me he was a wife beater or a rapist, or anything like this, I would agree that this man cannot be President of the United States. But he hasn't."
Steel said she was impressed by Hillary Clinton's choice to appear on "60 Minutes" in support of her husband. "If it's OK with her , it's OK with me," Steel said.
Donna Bojarsky, political consultant to actor-activist Richard Dreyfuss, said that Dreyfuss continues to support Clinton but noted that the recent developments "put the campaign in a bit of a holding pattern. There's no road map for how something like this will turn out. But in talking to political people all over the country, I don't see any massive shifts or defections."
Last week, before the Star story broke, some Hollywood politicos were observing a growing interest in Clinton that reflected the mood of the country--a mood that landed Clinton on the cover of Time magazine. A few, such as Steel and Medavoy's wife, producer Patricia Duff Medavoy, had openly switched from Kerrey to Clinton as long ago as last fall.
Major Hollywood fund raising for Clinton began with an Oct. 13 party at a North Hollywood bed-and-breakfast called La Maida, hosted by Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, executive producers of "Designing Women" and "Evening Shade."
The Thomasons, who hail from Clinton's home state of Arkansas, hosted another Clinton fund-raiser Dec. 6 at Sportsmen's Lodge in Studio City. "I think we had at least 10 Kerrey converts that we convinced to come over to us," Harry Thomason said. Also on Dec. 6, Steel threw Clinton a party.
Reacting to the Star's charges, a defiant Bloodworth-Thomason said: "We are empowered by adversity."
"I've been involved in campaigns before, but I've never seen anything like this--so much nonsense going on, so much that has nothing to do with the issues," she continued. "These people have been through 17 elections in Arkansas, and Arkansas politics are like nowhere else in the world. People get right in your face and call you by your first name and give you what-for every day of your life . . . they're used to this kind of rough-and-tumble thing."
The most recent party for Clinton took place Jan. 14 at the Bel-Air home of Eric Eisner, chief executive of Island World, a Los Angeles-based entertainment company, and his wife, Lisa. "You could barely get into the room," said Medavoy. The Clinton campaign plans another big fund-raiser at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Feb. 28.
While the moderate Clinton may at first glance seem an unlikely choice to fit Hollywood's liberal image, John Emerson, chief deputy city attorney and former manager of the Gary Hart campaign in 1984, said that stereotype does not necessarily hold.
"I would say 'progressive' is more appropriate," said Emerson, who currently backs Kerrey. "(Hollywood favorite) Hart was not the most liberal candidate in the field in 1984; more arguably, Mondale was, and the same in 1988. I think progressive and innovative are the keys; that is definitely appealing to folks in the entertainment industry."
Although no figures are yet available to prove that Clinton's fund-raising campaign in Hollywood has been more successful than Kerrey's, Patricia Medavoy, as well as others, believe Kerrey lost some of his momentum at the time of the Sally Field fund-raising party, where, she said, "a lot of people were disappointed" in Kerrey. Carole Isenberg, president of Big Light Films and one of the hosts of the Clinton party at the Eisner house, agreed. "There was a lot of enthusiasm for him, but he just didn't have that magnetism," she mused.
Mike Medavoy acknowledged that, at first, the entertainment industry--and the press--did adopt war hero Kerrey as the "Hollywood candidate;" his ties with Hollywood date back at least as far as the early 1980s, when as governor of Nebraska he indulged in a much-publicized romance with actress Debra Winger. But, Medavoy added: "I think people are beginning to pay attention to Clinton."
Those in Kerrey's camp do not agree that Clinton is Hollywood's front-runner. They observe an even split between industry Democrats supporting Kerrey and Clinton--and minimal support for Harkin. "We're doing just fine in Hollywood," said Burkett.
Pat Kingsley, president of PMK publicity agency and a Kerrey supporter, said it's too soon to identify trends; so did another fund-raiser for Kerrey, Disney Channel President John Cooke. "In the beginning, people said they were waiting to find out what (New York Gov. Mario M.) Cuomo was going to do before they made up their minds," Kingsley said. "Now, I get the feeling people are waiting to see what happens in New Hampshire."
And, Kingsley added, they are also waiting to see what will happen with Clinton and Flowers. "If it's 'proved' that he's been lying, then I think it's a problem," she said. "The mere fact that he may have strayed would not be as devastating as being caught in a lie."
Kingsley noted that such allegations happen all the time to entertainment industry figures, but "the difference is, they're not going out there and asking for votes. People will still go see their movies if they're good movies, but politicians--what they're going out and asking for is trust."
Those in both camps agree that Hollywood has been slower to make its choices than in either 1984 or 1988; indecision still abounds. Fox Chairman Barry Diller, for example, held a fund-raising party for Kerrey at his home Nov. 2, but he has raised money for both Clinton and Kerrey and would only comment, through a spokesman: "I have supported them both."
Agent Mike Ovitz hosted Kerrey as a house guest in Aspen for New Year's Eve, yet his company, Creative Artists Agency (CAA), invited Clinton in to talk politics with a group of 20 agents. Ovitz's spokesman, Steve Rivers, said Ovitz has not endorsed a candidate and that CAA does not endorse candidates. Clinton also has visited International Creative Management (ICM).
Barbra Streisand, noted for her activism for both political causes and candidates, said: "I can't say yet. I am going to support a Democrat, that's for sure. We've had two Presidents who lived in denial--Reagan and Bush, a President who said, 'What recession?' I have to look at a lot of things--like who's pro-choice." Cybill Shepherd also declined to comment, saying she had not yet made up her mind.
Many of today's Clinton supporters, including the Medavoys and the Thomasons, backed Colorado Sen. Gary Hart in 1984 and 1988--or "1987-and-a-half," Bojarsky said ruefully, referring to Hart's decision to pull out of the campaign during spring, 1987.
Hart, a close friend of Warren Beatty's with strong Hollywood ties, left the campaign trail after the Miami Herald trailed the senator and discovered his relationship with actress-model Donna Rice. At that time, Hart lost many of his supporters in Hollywood and elsewhere because of the incident.
Clinton's entertainment industry supporters say the situation with the Arkansas governor is quite different.
"It may compare in that the subject matter is the same, but I think the circumstances are different," Bojarsky said. "Gary didn't say that the pictures (of Hart with Rice) are untrue; Clinton has denied that the affair took place. And because Gov. Clinton said it's not true, you can't have the same questioning of judgment that came out after Gary Hart--there were pictures ."
And what about the tapes?
"They were unclear--and not as conclusive," Bojarsky said. Marge Tabankin, president and executive director of the Hollywood Women's Political Committee, said another difference between the Clinton and Hart situations is the personal style of their wives. Unlike Lee Hart, "Hillary Clinton is not a victim--she does not in any way appear to be a victim," Tabankin said.
Times staff writer David Fox contributed to this report.