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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Barbra Streisand : Breaking Another Barrier--Mixing Politics and Hollywood

<i> Robert Scheer is a contributing editor to The Times</i>

According to the Washington-based media, a Hollywood-Clinton connection threatens to tear apart the very fabric of this Republic. The response has been a barroom assault on the entertainment industry of unprecedented meanness. Film executives, actors and writers who have met with the President have been dismissed as “nitwits” in leading publications. The critics insist that anyone who works in the L.A.-based entertainment industry is, by definition, incapable of serious involvement with the politics industry of Washington.

Much of this criticism has focused on Barbra Streisand, who was prominent in her support of the Clinton campaign and has, it must be admitted, visited with the President. Interviewed by phone at her New York residence, she seemed genuinely baffled by the vituperation of some in the media.

“I think they’re using Hollywood to try to discredit him,” she said. Like the rabbinical student she played in “Yentl,” which she also directed, Streisand is both enthusiastic and bookish in her fascination with issues, excitedly referring to one think-tank study or another. She claims no great expertise, but resents the notion that a women who has been successful in the world of entertainment is not entitled to speak out. “When I first directed a movie,” she says, “it was as if I was being told how dare I attempt to infiltrate a man’s domain. Now it’s: How dare I be interested in politics.”

Worried that she not appear too combative, she adds: “I normally would not speak out but these attacks are just such an out and out put down of our whole industry. Forgive my tone if I sound angry but I am.”

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Few careers in Hollywood could match that of Streisand. With 57 gold and platinum albums and more than 60 million albums sold, she is the top-selling female artist in the world. Along the way, she became a producer and director, and won the 1968 Oscar for best actress in her debut film, “Funny Girl.”

Streisand has endowed academic chairs covering women’s studies at USC, cardiovascular research at UCLA and another at the Environmental Defense Fund. Her Streisand foundation grants around $1 million a year to civil liberties, civil rights and environmental causes.

Question: The Washington media has made much of your access to the White House. How much contact has there been?

Answer: Not much. I was granted 5 minutes with Clinton. I talked with him about what was being done about getting more money for AIDS research. The month before, some of us from the entertainment industry were invited to the health-care meeting. We didn’t even have dinner with Clinton, as some reported. He had dinner with senators. We saw him afterwards. We had dinner with his mother--whom I adore because she’s this resilient, optimistic woman. Then we all watched a basketball game with, like, 50 members of the staff.

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Q: What about the criticism that people from Hollywood are getting into areas that they are not expert on, like health care?

A: The contingent from Hollywood was asked to come to the White House for communications ideas--not to make policy about the health-care issue. We were called there for them to tap into our communications skills--how to get a message across to the American people.

Q: How closely are you following events in Washington?

A: My favorite show is the C-Span. That’s what I watch: C-Span 1 and C-Span 2. When I’m not watching CNN.

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Q: The media would be happier if you’d just go--

A: Shopping.

Q: Is there any special interest here for your profession that you want the President to respond to? There was a news report about Hollywood lobbying for concessions from the FCC.

A: I don’t know anything about that; it’s about TV and has nothing to do with me--although that didn’t stop the press from using a picture of me in that story.

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Q: But are you an expert?

A: Do I wish I was more informed? Yes. Do I have opinions on certain subjects? Yes. And it is my right to express them just like any other citizen. We all should give back to the society in different ways.

Q: People from Hollywood have been referred to by the Washington media as “nitwits” and “bubble-heads.

A: Also “airheads.” This is so unfair. And it’s smearing the main industry in our community. It’s saying there isn’t a brain around. Did the entertainment industry create the national debt? How come nobody attacked the Republican White House for their involvement with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Charlton Heston and Bruce Willis? Remember when actor John Gavin was appointed ambassador to Mexico? I understand why the conservatives attack us--they deem us a very dangerous crowd, especially because of the kind of money some of us can raise for the Democrats.

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Q: But it seems there are more of you visiting Washington now.

A: First of all, Hollywood celebrities were invited to this Washington correspondents dinner. And each piece of the media--Newsweek, or Time, or whatever--tries to get the biggest celebrities at their table. I mean, that’s the funny part of it. So it’s like they invite us there to trash us.

There are plenty of people in the media who make a living out of dropping our names into their articles. The gap between the respectable media and the tabloids has shrunk.

Q: But it’s not just the tabloids; the so-called responsible press is involved .

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A: They seem to be in a Hollywood-bashing mode these days. They reported contemptuously that Janet Reno and I had dinner and “hashed out issues.” Why two prominent, hard-working women, isolated by their position, should not want to talk to each other is beyond me. Why such venomous response toward people from Hollywood? Why are we so threatening to the media, which pretends to know everything? Is it territorial? “Don’t Believe What You Read” is the title of a song I wrote in the mid-'70s, after I was so tired of reading these inventive stories about myself.

Q: You also made the Washington scene a bit.

A: The next night we all went to the Gridiron dinner hosted by the Washington Press Corps. It was fun. Those people are stars to us. We’re stars to them, but they’re stars to us. Like seeing Evans and Novak, John McLaughlin, Al Hunt and all the people we see on TV. You know, it’s fun to meet them in person. I don’t agree with all their politics, but I like them. They’re very theatrical. They’re hams. They get up and they do costume skits, and they sing songs, and it’s very funny. Mostly I was in Washington as a tourist.

Q: Seriously?

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A: Yes, as an American tourist, who has never taken the time to enjoy the capital of our nation. The media seems to want underlying motives for something that had a quite innocent purpose. I did all the tourist things I never had time for--visiting the Smithsonian and Monticello. The most moving moment was being at the National Archives and holding the Emancipation Proclamation and Louisiana Purchase. The most moving moment was in the Holocaust Museum--seeing the film about the survivors who were reaffirming the preciousness of life, struggling to maintain their dignity, helping one another to gather strength to survive. They didn’t surrender to cynicism--which is killing our country and preventing our pulling together.

Q: The Times printed an Op-Ed article that contended Hollywood people should not be listened to because they can’t grasp the issues.

A: The entertainment people going to Washington have done a very good job raising issues. My movies have certaily dealt with sensitive issues. Right now, I’m working on a movie, “The Normal Heart,” about the early period of the AIDS epidemic.

We have the right as an industry, as people, as professionals, to be taken as seriously as automobile executives. No one would question the president or vice president of General Motors talking to all sorts of people in Washington. An industry that is having trouble selling its products abroad. On the other hand, people in Hollywood make something that the whole world wants to buy, it improves our balance of payments, creates jobs and pays a lot in taxes.

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Q: Much was made in the media of your meeting with (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) Colin Powell, with the suggestion being you lobbied him on key issues. What did happen?

A: I went to this dinner and I saw Colin Powell--whom I had met a year ago, at the American Academy of Achievement, when we attended a three-day conference. Each year, 400 of the brightest high-school students are invited to hear prominent people discuss the reasons for their success. We met there and liked each other. So, quite naturally, when we met again at the correspondents dinner, we chatted about the three days we had spent together. Big deal.

Q: Some in the media reported that you discussed gays in the military and Bosnia.

A: We never discussed Bosnia, or gays in the military--because the time and place were inappropriate. Under any circumstance, it would have been presumptuous for me to lobby him about Bosnia--a subject on which I have no expertise and certainly do not know which policy should be followed.

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Q: How long was this conversation?

A: It was 6 minutes. But the media made a big deal about it. “Gen. Colin Powell and a hug feast with the star.” I was thrilled to be at the dinner because that is where I sang for President Kennedy 30 years ago. That’s why I went. This time it was fun to just be a guest.

Q: The attacks on you in the media suggest that you are naive about politics, that this is all new to you.

A: I was on Nixon’s Enemies List because I supported Gene McCarthy in 1968 and raised funds for Daniel Ellsberg in the Pentagon Papers trial. Then I did a concert for George McGovern. I campaigned for Bella Abzug from the back of a truck when she was elected to Congress. I was operating off my instincts, doing what I felt right as a citizen. I’m not a full-time activist. I’ve always been pro-choice, for the equality of women, for the protection of the environment. That’s why I have a foundation to fortify my beliefs. That’s how I give back. That’s how I raise my voice. And whether the right-wing conservatives like it or not, I will keep on raising it.

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