Hollywood in Washington Actors want roles in policy, promotion

May 09, 1993|By Maureen Dowd | Maureen Dowd,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- It's hard to pinpoint the moment whe things began spinning out of control on the celebrity front.

Was it when Michael Douglas eclipsed President Clinton at last weekend's White House Correspondents' Association dinner?

Was it when George Stephanopoulos, the White House communications director, began dating Jennifer Grey, the actress who starred in the 1987 movie "Dirty Dancing"?

Maybe it was simply when Barbra Streisand became as familiar a figure on the political scene as John McLaughlin, the carnivorous talk-show host.

The Clinton White House is extravagantly star-struck, and Hollywood's liberal luminaries, sensing an opportunity to be taken seriously and savoring the compatible politics, are flocking to Washington. Hollywood moguls and stars are pushing to move beyond their traditional roles as campaign ornaments and cash machines and become more substantive players as advisers on communications, image and policy and as salesmen for Clinton administration programs.

Cabinet members and White House officials are giving the Hollywood big shots policy briefings and are asking their help in selling programs on health care, the environment and national service.

"The idea that these insulated and bubble-headed people should help make policy is ridiculous," said Leon Wieseltier, the cultural editor of the New Republic magazine. "Hollywood actors are even more out of touch than elected politicians. In Hollywood, politics is another way of dressing and talking."

But Mr. Wieseltier appreciates the similar qualities that link the worlds of politics and movies. "They're highly scripted, poorly directed and always over budget," he noted.

Washington and Hollywood have always been drawn to each other because of their common interest in performance and image and their complementary insecurities: The Hollywood elite wants to be seen as serious, and the Washington elite wants to be seen as glamorous.

But with the technological and talk-show revolution of the last campaign, politics has taken on even more of the techniques of popular culture and packaged entertainment. The Democratic National Convention and the Clinton inauguration were painstakingly produced by Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, the Hollywood sitcom czars who have also bought a beach-front estate outside Santa Barbara, Calif., that the Clintons, their longtime friends, can use as a Western retreat.

Ronald and Nancy Reagan entertained old Hollywood friends in the White House, veteran stars such as Charlton Heston and Jimmy Stewart. With George Bush, there were only rare glimpses of glitter: drop-bys by Bo Derek and Michael Jackson and the pumping-up appearances of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

But now there is a Democratic president whose nickname is Elvis and who likes Hollywood, a town that was slow to warm to him as a candidate but now seems to be in a stampede.

And having become more sophisticated politically, many in Hollywood's royalty now want the same sort of access that other valuable constituencies such as Wall Street have long enjoyed.

No access, no checks

"Celebrities don't want to just be called to write checks," said Margery Tabankin, the executive director of the Hollywood Women's Political Committee and the head of the Barbra Streisand Foundation.

"Nobody in Hollywood comes to the table thinking that they have the answers on Bosnia. Come on! But they do come as artists, pained by human suffering, who want to bring their creative skills to the process," said Ms. Tabankin.

She said Hollywood types were helping to develop marketing themes for administration programs and were committed to make personal appearances and public service announcements.

A couple of Clinton strategists, detecting in the polls some negative sentiment about Mr. Clinton's celebrity connections, have warned that the president and his bedazzled young aides should cool their romance with Hollywood because it gives a liberal and elitist cast to a White House that wants to appear centrist and populist.

Even some on the West Coast privately worry that Mr. Clinton might be too taken with what one calls "the siren song that is so alluring to politicians."

"Frankly," said this powerful member of the Hollywood set who is close to the Clintons, "he'd be very wise to keep us at arm's length."

At least one Clinton strategist was openly contemptuous of the idea of catering to Hollywood. When the White House invited a group of Hollywood people to a health-care briefing, James Carville, one of the briefers, lost his Southern-fried temper and lectured them in a profane manner that made it clear that he did not think their affluent lives had equipped them to devise a plan to sell health care to average, struggling Americans.

Gary David Goldberg, the producer and director of such television shows as "Family Ties" and "Brooklyn Bridge," stormed out and later told the Los Angeles Times that Mr. Carville had acted like "Anthony Perkins playing Fidel Castro on acid."

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