To HOLLYWOOD it smacked of desperation.
That’s why the reaction to a new John McCain ad attempting to portray Barack Obama as a kind of mindless celebrity -- likening him to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears -- drew collective yawns and shrugs of irritation from politically active members of the entertainment industry.
“I didn’t think McCain could look silly,” mused Norman Lear. “But that ad diminishes him and makes him look silly.”
Just for a start, industry types say the ad is wrong: In the Hollywood lexicon, Obama is not a celebrity. He’s a rock star. (Note to McCain strategists: That’s the difference between Jessica Simpson and Bono.)
Then there’s the small inconvenience that Paris’ parents, Rick and Kathleen Hilton, are supporters of McCain’s Republican presidential bid. According to federal campaign records, they gave the maximum $4,600.
No word on their plans for the general election, but this much is certain: Their daughter has never paid to attend an Obama campaign fundraiser. (It’s unclear whether she’s even met the senator, or whether she’s even registered to vote. The same goes for Spears.)
McCain’s latest attempt at discrediting his handsome, photogenic young rival particularly galls stars and executives with a memory, because only eight years ago, McCain was a fixture in Hollywood fundraising circles when he tried to raise money from the very people his ad now ridicules.
At the time, dozens of people in Hollywood -- including Lear, Harrison Ford, Quincy Jones, Berry Gordy and Michael Douglas -- gave to McCain because they thought he was a Republican celebrity with a great personal story. And, dare we say, some celebrities, namely Warren Beatty, even became friends with the Arizona senator.
But the truth is most of Hollywood won’t return McCain’s calls nowadays because many of the stars and executives he initially impressed now believe the maverick stance they found so attractive was just a pose. Hollywood doesn’t object to a good pose -- unless, of course, it doesn’t work.
(For his part, McCain said at a recent appearance that he stands by the ad and is proud of the way his campaign has been conducted).
Meanwhile, Hollywood is gearing up for pro-Obama events -- concerts, parties and galas -- between now and November.
A soundtrack CD with songs dedicated to Obama is in the works (think of all that musical hope available for download to your iPod.) A black and white ball is planned for Aug. 21 in Beverly Hills where celebrities are being invited to celebrate Obama’s candidacy.
(The candidate, however, will not actually be there. He will be busy working on his acceptance speech, which he’ll deliver four days later at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.)
Some of the celebrities who’ve already signed up to attend the ball, which is being organized independently of Obama’s campaign, include: Lucy Liu, Ashley Judd, Jessica Alba, Don Cheadle, Khaled Hosseini, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Dennis Haysbert, Kathy Griffin, Zach Braff, Regina King, Hill Harper, Ben McKenzie, Melanie Brown and “many executives and industry professionals,” according event chairwoman Asal Masomi.
“The theme of the gala will focus on celebrating diversity and promoting cultural awareness,” Masomi said, adding that Obama’s campaign is expected to send a representative.
Some of Obama’s strongest celebrity backers, like George Clooney, have been careful to keep their distance because they don’t want to compromise the candidate’s image as a serious politician. Moreover, as many in the industry have noted, the Obama campaign has been especially careful about vetting stars before they’re allowed to work the campaign trail on the senator’s behalf.
“Surrogates and high-profile supporters have their place in the campaign,” said Democratic strategist Michael Feldman, a former advisor to Al Gore. “They can help draw crowds, raise money and communicate enthusiasm for the campaign. Like every other asset, they need to be leveraged carefully.”
The fact of the matter is that for all his popularity in the entertainment industry, Obama has kept Hollywood at a friendly but slight distance. He’s hardly waded into the scene with the sort of relish that Bill Clinton did in the 1990s.
“Celebrities are coming onboard because they’re excited about Obama, like the rest of America,” said Hollywood publicist Howard Bragman. “It’s not because he’s pandering to them.”
Bragman called the McCain ad “inauthentic.”
“Anyone who knows and listens to Barack Obama doesn’t think he’s empty-headed,” said Bragman, who has known more than his share of vacant skulls. “All this feels very Roveian to me.”
Like many in Hollywood, Bragman thinks this is the bottom line: “McCain is trying to use Obama’s popularity against him, but guess what? Obama is popular.”