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Curse of the limo liberals

This may be a divided country, but at least there’s one thing about the 2004 presidential election that nearly everybody can agree on: Hollywood took it on the chin. It’s no surprise to hear a scold like Michael Medved say that Democrats will never compete in Red State America until they “escape their identification as the party of Beverly Hills dilettantes and self-righteous celebrities.” But standing shoulder to shoulder with Medved was former Clinton White House chief of staff Leon Panetta, who told the Washington Post that “the party of FDR has become the party of Michael Moore and ‘Fahrenheit 9/11' and it does not help us in big parts of the country.”

Even Bush critic Marc Cooper marveled in the left-leaning LA Weekly: “When you ask yourself who are the great Democratic mass icons of our times ... damned if we don’t come up with literal clowns like Al Franken and Michael Moore. Doesn’t this say something rather startling about the state of the Democrats?”

It makes you wonder: Has Hollywood become a millstone around the Democratic party’s neck, only making it easier for conservatives to stereotype Democratic candidates as the latte-sipping stooges of the showbiz elite? After all, this was an election in which George Bush never failed to tell audiences that John Kerry believed “the heart and soul of America was in Hollywood,” not Toledo or Tampa or wherever the president was speaking that day.

“The Democrats really paid a price for their association with strident Hollywood activists and their palpable contempt for regular people,” says Mike Murphy, the Republican political consultant who ran John McCain’s 2000 presidential bid and now works with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. “When the Republicans talk about limousine-liberal elitism, it’s code for Michael Moore, who really turned people off with his stridency when he inserted himself into the middle of the campaign. He deserves the Lee Atwater medal for service rendered to the Republican Party.”

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To be fair, there were a few artists who displayed a touch of class, most notably the Bruce Springsteen-led coalition of rock stars who did Kerry concerts around the country, all without engaging in incendiary political rhetoric. If only their movie star brethren could’ve shown such discretion, perhaps Bush advisor Karl Rove wouldn’t have had such an easy time turning Kerry’s showbiz support into yet another Republican cultural wedge issue. Instead, Jennifer Aniston called Bush an idiot, along with an expletive we can’t print here, while Cher dubbed the president “stupid and lazy.”

The low point of self-defeating activism came in July at a Radio City Music Hall fundraiser at which Chevy Chase said the president had the intellect of “an egg timer,” John Mellencamp called Bush “a cheap thug” and Meryl Streep, in a performance that brings new meaning to the word sanctimonious, belittled the president’s faith.

Is it any wonder the Bush campaign tried in vain to get the Democratic National Committee to release a tape of the event? If there was one thing everyday Americans didn’t want to hear, it was self-involved celebrities trashing the president.

Errol Morris, who won a best documentary Oscar last year for “The Fog of War,” spent much of the year making commercials for MoveOn.org, focusing on Republicans who were supporting Kerry. After listening to voters in focus groups, he became convinced that the showbiz community’s shrill rhetoric was counterproductive.

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“People didn’t want to hear Bush being called a liar, because in some sense, they felt you weren’t just attacking Bush, but attacking the whole country,” he says.

Hollywood Democrats were quick to criticize the Bush team for being out of touch with reality, yet they lived in just as big a bubble themselves. It’s bad enough that most showbiz types were quick to sneer at the runaway success of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” a movie most of them didn’t bother to see. But the industry’s pop culture antennae were even more off-kilter with “Fahrenheit 9/11.” I was at the film’s first Hollywood screening this spring, an event that drew an eye-popping assortment of the showbiz elite. Afterward, the reaction -- mine included -- was unanimous: When people see this movie, they’ll never be able to vote for Bush.

As it turned out, the film may have hurt Kerry, especially when Osama bin Laden turned up in a video in late October, using language that seemed lifted straight from the movie. When Moore told CNN that “it sounds like [Bin Laden] had a bootleg of the film,” he gave the Bush team a free pass to triangulate him, Bin Laden and Kerry, a trifecta that may have cost the Democrats. According to an ad agency survey of nearly 1,000 registered voters before the election, seeing “Fahrenheit 9/11" swayed only 4% of respondents to back Kerry while encouraging 24% to back Bush. Even if the numbers’ effect is exaggerated by GOP supporters, they aren’t pretty.

No one’s saying the industry should temper its views or stop funneling money to the Democrats. After all, the GOP rakes in tons of cash from ardent conservatives, but most of its far-right supporters are shrewd enough to avoid the limelight. The fact remains: Hollywood has a tin ear when it comes to understanding which issues and values matter to average Americans. Showbiz people spend an inordinate amount of time compiling research about consumer attitudes, but when you travel first class or in your private jet, you don’t meet too many of those consumers.

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In the early days, the entertainment industry was filled with working-class strivers from Brooklyn to Burbank, but many of today’s younger executives and filmmakers are the offspring of affluent professionals or industry insiders. Some have family back home in Muncie, but the folks are too polite to tell their overachieving kids how ridiculous they sound when they start yammering about their fabulous new high-protein diet. Hollywood is an incredibly insular environment, where everyone drives the same cars, wears the same clothes and eats at the same chic restaurants.

“There’s an incredibly unhealthy uniformity of opinion in Hollywood,” says actor Ron Silver, a recent conservative convert who spoke at the Republican National Convention in September. “When you’re at a dinner party and the subject of the president comes up, it’s just assumed that all 20 people are thinking, ‘How are we going to get rid of this [jerk].’ I can’t think of any colleague in the entertainment community having a serious conversation with someone who’s pro-life or a born-again Christian. There’s just a real disconnect from the rest of the country.”

If the showbiz world is ever going to connect with voters, it has to learn to respect them first. Just ask Kirk Wagar, a Miami trial lawyer who served as the Democrats’ Florida finance chairman. Upset over the party’s inability to speak to real Americans, he’s launching an organization devoted to helping Democratic candidates communicate a values-driven message to lower- and middle-income voters who should have a natural affinity for the party’s economic message.

“Americans love Hollywood and its movies,” he says. “But the vast majority of the country honestly believes that the limousine liberals from New York and California don’t have any respect for their institutions, whether it’s going to NASCAR races or church on Sunday. They think that showbiz people feel superior or look down their noses at them. The ultimate irony is that a lot of the most successful people in the entertainment community are from the heartland themselves. But people in show business and people in the Democratic Party have to find a new way to speak to people who disagree with us.”

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All this talk of reaching out to regular folks couldn’t help but remind me of “Sullivan’s Travels,” the incomparable 1941 satire by Preston Sturges. The movie is about a self-involved Hollywood director (yes, they were self-involved even back then) who concludes that his fluffy comedies aren’t worthy of a war-torn world and dolls himself up as a tramp to see the real America. He ends up working on a chain gang, where he discovers that, for real people in dire straits, fluffy comedies are a wonderful thing indeed.

If today’s Hollywood activists want to learn how to communicate with real people, maybe they should try the Sturges approach -- go out and meet them. No preaching, just lending an ear. (They could even skip the chain gang part.) When you actually shut up and listen, it’s amazing what you can learn.

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The Big Picture appears Tuesdays in Calendar. For comments or suggestions, e-mail patrick.goldstein@latimes.com.

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