It’s Lights, Camera, Politics

Jack Valenti, chairman of the Motion Picture Assn., was special assistant to President Johnson

The Democratic and Republican conventions have gone Hollywood, with podium programs worthy of any popular TV sitcom. The politicians hit their marks, say their well-rehearsed lines, under the supervising and disciplined eye of their handlers. It is enough to reduce serious convention scholars to quavering depressives. No wonder Prozac is so popular.

Even as Democrats and Republicans publicly denounce Hollywood for its lack of “values,” both parties embrace its supple creativity. They are behaving much like the family that frowns on the black-sheep uncle who drinks, but welcomes him at the family dinner table because he is so engagingly witty. Most of the family secretly wishes they could be like him.

Case in point: The Teleprompter is to the politician what special effects are to the movie/TV creative community. It allows public officials to collaborate in the ultimate delusion wherein the ramblings of speakers of feeble and imperfect oratorical skills now sound like Churchill summoning the free world, never glancing at a note or reaching for that elusive thought, that wandering word, even as they cast upon their audience a confiding and benevolent gaze. If good acting, as someone once said, is achieving a fluid harmony between performer and public, then every public official is an actor. We are bearing witness to the Democratic/Republican tribute to and imitation of Hollywood’s mesmerizing attraction to audiences.


Nothing unusual about that. The fact, too long in the closet, is that politicians and Hollywood are sprung from the same DNA. They both deal in illusions whose machinations are oftentimes unseen by and unknown to the public.

The insiders have known this for a long time. So do the rowdy young political professionals, as well as the modern breed of Druid priests described as “political consultants” who ponder the entrails of focus groups and deep polling so that their clients can be guided to electoral triumph.

The TV commentators know, too, though their prescription for conveyed knowledge is to enlist spokesmen for each side to ladle out effusions that can be charitably described as lacerations of facts and truth and never at any point give a specific answer. Steve Forbes, my choice for Best Actor in a Continuing Series, is the master of the TV retort. Ask Forbes how his family is or how he intends to deal with Bosnia or whether he will reveal his income tax, and out comes “hope, growth and opportunity.” God, how I admire this man.

Both conventions resembled a movie/TV set. Swarms of actors (here called TV correspondents) entice other actors (thoroughly willing public officials) with an open mike and hurl questions designed to unravel the steeliest of nerves. All that is missing is a laugh track.

As the campaign heats up in September, the script is readied for shooting. First, the creation of the dramatic narrative for the candidates. This includes the familiar “photo opportunity,” as well as new sets with the candidates on bus rides, waving from paddle wheelers, astride ponies, in parades, then intercut a brief romantic interlude of hand-in-hand-with-spouse strolling before the camera, then on to hitting the crowds where babies are nuzzled, hands are shaken and adulation rewarded with fixed, ceaseless smiles and, of course, the ritual mixing with the masses, the candidates chewing on an indigestible hero sandwich, with bulging eyes and mouth insistently faking enjoyment. This is the magical stuff of Hollywood.

Yes, there is always the revision of the script. In test screenings (in a political campaign this is called “getting the theme and the lines right”), there is the nervous reading of the audience response cards (focus groups and polls) so that the script doctors (political consultants) can modify the dialogue, readjust the narrative, to make sure that audiences (voters) have a clearly favorable view of the story and the stars.


The movie/television industry and politicians have entered upon matrimony, an uneasy coupling but creatively and mutually beneficial. So what Hollywood and Washington have joined together, let no rational person put asunder. And if things get tough, the Democrats and Republicans know precisely what to do: Call Steven Spielberg or Arnold Schwarzenegger.