Celebrities Capitalize on Star Power in D.C.
In four decades as a guitarist with such iconic rock bands as the Byrds and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, David Crosby played in front of millions of fans at such venues as Woodstock, the Fillmore East, the Hollywood Bowl and London’s Wembley Stadium.
Lately, one of his regular gigs has been at one of the nation’s most elite clubs: the U.S. Senate.
Last year, the shaggy-haired, 64-year-old musician donned a suit in lieu of his usual bluejeans to lobby the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, seeking to thwart plans to expand Chumash casinos and commercial developments near his home in the tranquil Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara County. On another occasion, Crosby opined to lawmakers on campaign finance reform.
“Being a celebrity cuts both ways in Washington,” Crosby said. “In some ways it gets you access. But in other ways it makes people dismiss you. You have to be insanely careful about what you say.”
Crosby is part of a growing parade of celebrities trekking up Capitol Hill to talk to the nation’s lawmakers about issues that rarely have anything to do with their day jobs. Trying to get attention for pet causes easily lost in the clutter of public policy debates, stars hope their cachet can make the difference in opening doors, getting media attention and scoring face time on C-SPAN.
During the last year, Washington’s show has starred actress Salma Hayek testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on domestic violence about how she became familiar with the issue researching a movie role. Jazz musician and New Orleans native Wynton Marsalis told the House Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management how important it was to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.
Actress and AIDS activist Ashley Judd spoke to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the need to develop an HIV vaccine for Africa. Actor Don Cheadle, who starred in the movie “Hotel Rwanda” set in that country’s 1994 civil war, joined five members of Congress on a fact-finding mission to learn about refugees in Sudan.
When it comes to hobnobbing with lawmakers, U2 frontman Bono ranks as Washington’s reigning celebrity lobbyist. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) is a frequent guest at the band’s concerts. In October, Bono lunched for 90 minutes with President Bush at the White House, where the two discussed debt relief, AIDS, malaria and world trade, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said.
“More and more celebrities are lobbying for particular causes,” said Darrell West, a professor of political science at Brown University and author of the book “Celebrity Politics.” “They attract the TV cameras, and celebrities are great fundraisers.”
For celebrities, testifying and lobbying in the nation’s capital offers the ego stroke of being taken seriously on important issues, and a chance to make headlines for something other than their latest loves or public mishaps.
In an e-mail to the Los Angeles Times, actress Mary Tyler Moore said her lobbying on behalf of the Diabetes Research Foundation stemmed from her own experiences as a diabetic. Having the disease “has fueled my desire to help ... find a cure,” Moore said.
After actor Michael J. Fox testified on Capitol Hill in 1999 about his battles with Parkinson’s disease, lawmakers urged the National Institutes of Health to intensify the government’s search for better treatments. Since then research grants for Parkinson’s have jumped more than tenfold from $25 million to as much as $300 million this year, said Robin Elliott, executive director of the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation.
“In a television culture, celebrity has become crucial to advancing all kinds of causes,” Elliott said.
But it also can often backfire when it appears a celebrity is simply fronting for an issue in which he or she has no special expertise.
In 2002, Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) walked out of a Senate subcommittee hearing on the environmental effect of mountain mining when Kevin Richardson, a Kentucky native and member of the Backstreet Boys singing group, was called as a witness. Voinovich told reporters the proceedings had turned into “a joke.”
Lou Diamond Phillips, star of such films as “La Bamba” and “Young Guns,” said it was unfair to assume celebrities were unqualified to testify. Phillips said he met resistance when he testified in 2002 about extending veterans benefits to Filipinos who had fought in World War II. Phillips is part Filipino and the son of a war veteran.
“It upsets me that people don’t think we have the right to speak out,” Phillips said in an interview. “We are citizens like everybody else. I made it certain to the senators that I was no carpetbagger.”
When Crosby testified last summer on the tribal development plans, Connecticut blogger Edward Janusz questioned his qualifications.
“Mr. Crosby seems like an intelligent person,” Janusz said in an interview. “But I’m more inclined to listen to people who are personally involved and have some expertise.”
Congressional hearings for decades were mostly dominated by nondescript government, industry and academic experts. Stars called to testify typically were asked about issues directly related to the entertainment industry, such as when the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1940s investigated alleged Communist infiltration of Hollywood.
Credit former top Hollywood lobbyist Jack Valenti and Washington lawyer Michael Gardner with helping demonstrate during the 1980s the clout celebrities could have on Capitol Hill. They mobilized some of Hollywood’s biggest names to counter government efforts to end financial syndication rules that forbade broadcasters from owning any of the TV programs they aired.
Valenti squired Warren Beatty, Stefanie Powers, Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas to Washington to testify, lobby and pose for snapshots with star-struck lawmakers.
Gardner took Mary Tyler Moore, Alan Alda and Jean Stapleton to make the rounds of federal regulators who were siding with the TV networks in favor of the rule change.
In the end, the beleaguered television networks were outmatched by Hollywood’s star power.
Financial syndication rules were preserved for nearly a decade before a judicial ruling ended them in the early 1990s.
Valenti, who retired in 2004 as head of the Motion Picture Assn. of America after 38 years, has a relatively simple explanation for why celebrity testimony can be so effective: Congressional hearings are dreadfully dull.
“Most people come in and duck their heads and read their testimony and leave no lasting impression,” he said.
But by virtue of their star power and training, Valenti said, “actors can give Oscar-winning performances.”