Political Hollywood's Lack of Commitment

Times Staff Writer

The rock group The Eagles were in Washington, D.C., last month to play a benefit with the Dixie Chicks when an unlikely visitor came knocking at their suite at the Four Seasons hotel: Wesley K. Clark.

The rockers, who perform such '70s anthems as "Hotel California," grilled the retired four-star Army general and newly minted presidential candidate about his politics, and liked what they heard. So much that they agreed to headline a benefit concert tonight at Morton's, the swank locale of the annual Vanity Fair party.

It's the first of the Hollywood candidate bashes to feature a performance by a big-name talent. Many in the entertainment community are taking a wait-and-see attitude.

"We've had conversations with a lot of young and very talented big-name performers who say, 'We love the general,' " said Jordan Kerner, a producer who is co-chairing the concert. " 'We just want to see what happens in 10 more states.' "

Despite an ardent courtship by Democrats, Hollywood's heart remains unclaimed. Fund-raising has progressed more slowly and activists must work harder for their dollars than in the past.

Soft money -- the unlimited contributions that Hollywood used to shell out primarily to the Democratic Party and its committees rather than directly to candidates -- is now banned under new campaign laws.

With Arnold Schwarzenegger recently elected to the governor's seat, meanwhile, Republicans are emerging from the closet of this famously liberal community and are also scooping up Hollywood dollars. President Bush has raised the most money of any candidate, garnering $514,675 from people in the entertainment industry as of Sept. 30, according to research by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks campaign contributions.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is close behind, with $513,846 coming from a range of celebrities, including Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon and Mel Brooks. Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, with $411,250, has picked up donations from Jerry Seinfeld and Bette Midler, while U.S. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri has raised $289,446 with the backing of Barry Diller, "Friends" co-creator Marta Kauffman and Chevy Chase.

Campaign records do not yet reflect the impact of Clark, who jumped into the race in mid-September. But among those quickly coming to his aid were Norman Lear and his wife, Lyn Davis Lear.

The Lears' spokesman said they immediately worked the phones and raised $200,000 for the candidate. According to Kerner, an informal group of friends -- including himself, the Lears, record producer Irving Azoff and Peter Morton, chairman of the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino -- will have raised $1 million for Clark by Monday.

The bulk of the money is coming from the Eagles concert.

Dean and Clark have evoked passions in Hollywood because of their outsider status and critiques of the war in Iraq. The retired general, who has been meeting with Hollywood moguls Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, has sparked interest.

"The war is an enormous issue here," said Dan Adler, a Creative Artists Agency agent turned venture capitalist and a Clark supporter.

"In the case of most of the Beltway candidates [Gephardt, Kerry, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut], they voted for the war," Adler said. "There are a number of us who have felt very passionately since before the war that it's a mistake."

Yet, Kerry and Gephardt also are drawing support because of their political experience and knowledge of domestic and foreign affairs.

"This isn't a trendy choice for me," said "Seabiscuit" director Gary Ross. He recently co-sponsored a Gephardt fund-raiser at the home of Lynne Wasserman, the late Lew Wasserman's daughter.

Being president is "the most complex job in the world," Ross said. "You need someone with experience and skill to do it. Would you trust your life to a surgeon with a fresh new face who potentially would be able to operate on you?"

Still, money isn't exactly flowing out of Hollywood these days.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the entertainment industry ranked as No. 7 among the most generous industries in the 2000 election. But it has dropped to No. 10 in the 2004 cycle, edged out by the lobbyists, the insurance industry and commercial banks.

By the end of the third quarter, Sept. 30, the industry had doled out $6.1 million for political candidates, a paltry sum compared to the $38.9 million shelled out by lawyers.

Many in Hollywood simply can't decide whom to endorse among the nine Democrats trying to unseat Bush.

"Kill Bill" producer Lawrence Bender said many Hollywood donors were disenchanted by the 2000 and 2002 elections when, in their view, there was no really strong message coming from Democrats.

But with the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary nearing, Bender said, "people are starting to realize that eventually they're going to have to take their head out of the sand and do something."

Bender is part of the anybody-but-Bush tribe, and has held fund-raisers at his Holmby Hills home for Kerry, Gephardt, Dean and Edwards.

Barbra Streisand has given money to Dean, Edwards, Kerry, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, who has since dropped out of the race.

Margery Tabankin, a Hollywood activist who runs Streisand's personal and political foundation, said others also have sprinkled their money around because they "haven't made their minds up about whom to back but want to help people get their voices heard and campaigns launched."

Others sound less altruistic -- and optimistic -- about prospects for Democrats to beat Bush.

"We all get hit up. We all know them. Right now, it's less emotional than practical," said one studio chief who declined to be named, but who has given money to Dean, Kerry and Graham and plans on donating to Clark. "I'd like to see a Democrat in office, although I think it's very unlikely to happen."

Also uncommitted are the founders of DreamWorks -- Spielberg, Katzenberg and David Geffen. During Clinton's presidency, Geffen raised $15 million to $20 million for the Democrats, his spokesman said. So far this year he's been sitting the election out.

It's not just indecision. New campaign finance laws make it more difficult to write big checks to political parties that indirectly would help their candidates.

But individual donors can now give up to $4,000 to a federal candidate in an election cycle -- $2,000 for the primary and $2,000 for the general election.

Academy Award-winning producer Bruce Cohen, a Gephardt supporter, said the challenge in fund-raising is that event organizers are constantly prowling for people who haven't maxed out on contributions to individual candidates.

"It'd be easier for me to write the check that's the equivalent of 10 donors than to go out and get 10 people to write their own check," Cohen said.

Rob Reiner, co-chairman of Dean's California campaign, says he thinks the former governor has an edge on his rivals precisely because he's appealing for small donations -- well below the $2,000 and $4,000 limits.

Dean recently attracted a crowd of about 1,200 to an event at Union Station, with tickets going for $100 and $500. The Dean campaign says its average contribution hovers about $77.

"Here's the beauty of Dean's campaign: The people who are sending him donations aren't even close to maxing out," Reiner said.

While Democratic fund-raising in Hollywood has been piecemeal, Republican fund-raising has been more focused. Screenwriter Lionel Chetwynd said there's a growing GOP network in town, driven in part by the election of Bush as well as an influx of new people.

"The younger people coming into the business tend to be more conservative and Republican," Chetwynd said. "As a proportion of people in the industry, we've grown substantially in numbers."

At the end of June, Bush raised $4 million in one night when supporters from throughout Southern California gathered at a Century City hotel -- a good chunk of them from Hollywood. Kelsey Grammar led the audience in the Pledge of Allegiance, and Johnny Mathis sang the national anthem.

With tickets going for $2,000 a head, loyalists in the entertainment business filled about 12 to 15 tables, said Chetwynd, who served as dinner chairman.

"We're really happy," he said. "We couldn't be happier."

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