Hollywood searches for a Democratic star

Howard Dean took an early lead in entertainment-industry fundraising, but Wes Clark is making a run among the moguls and stars who backed Bill Clinton.

By Tim Grieve
Published December 2, 2003 10:30PM (EST)

In these early days of the presidential primary season, it's all very nice to meet the people. Here's Joe Lieberman talking with folks at Lindy's Diner in Keene, N.H. There's John Edwards getting an earful from a voter outside a coffee shop in Waukee, Iowa.

But much as the candidates will say how they love getting to know every mom and every pop in every no-account town in New Hampshire -- and much as Howard Dean will brag about visiting every single one of Iowa's 99 counties -- what you really want if you're running for president is something a little more glamorous, a lot more lucrative, and about a million miles away from the closest cornfield or cow.

You want a private get-acquainted lunch at Dreamworks with Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg. You want Rob Reiner to like you and write you a check and introduce you to his friends. You want Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez and a bunch of other L.A. swells to pay $2,000 apiece to hear the Eagles -- yes, the Eagles -- play "Hotel California" in a tent and then have dinner with you afterward.

What you really want is to be Bill Clinton.

The California primary is three months off, but the race for the hearts and minds and money of Hollywood is well underway. Howard Dean has raised more than a half a million dollars from actors, directors, musicians and others in the entertainment industry already, and latecomer Wes Clark is making up for lost time fast. Clark announced his candidacy on Sept. 17; by the close of the Federal Election Commission reporting period on Sept. 30, he had raised $105,000 from the entertainment industry, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and he has raised hundreds of thousands more since.

Six-figure numbers may not seem like much in the moneyed worlds of Hollywood and Washington. Since 1990, the entertainment industry has pumped more than $100 million into federal elections on behalf of Democrats -- about the same amount that the oil and gas industry has given to Republicans over the same period of time. Hollywood hasn't given anything like that kind of money to any Democrat yet this year. But it's early in the 2004 presidential race -- too early for the millions upon millions of dollars of Hollywood "soft money" that will find their way into the system regardless of how the Supreme Court rules on McCain-Feingold -- and nine Democratic candidates are dividing the cash that's already in. Once a clear front-runner emerges, and once all those relatively paltry $2,000 contributions give way to blockbuster fundraisers and a flood of "soft money," politically active entertainers say that Hollywood will be a major force in helping Democrats try to defeat George W. Bush.

"At the end of the day, the industry will coalesce like we always do," says Reiner, who played Archie Bunker's son-in-law on "All in the Family" and who directed films including "When Harry Met Sally," "Misery" and "The American President" before signing on as the co-chair of Howard Dean's California campaign. "It's more fractured now than it was during the Clinton era because Clinton was like a rock star. People here like stars. They thought Wesley Clark could be a movie star. They thought initially that John Edwards would be the movie star. But at the end of the day, we will coalesce."

If Reiner's comments sound like a not so thinly veiled stab at Wes Clark -- writing him off as a has-been before he ever was, lumping him together with a never-quite-caught-fire candidate like John Edwards -- well, if they sound like that, they probably are. With John Kerry's campaign stumbling, the Hollywood primary has suddenly become a Dean-vs.-Clark matchup, with Rep. Dick Gephardt making a surprisingly strong show of fundraising as the unexciting understudy. And for all the talk about coalescing and coming together and needing -- really needing -- to beat Bush, the partisans backing the former Vermont governor and the retired Army general aren't at all reticent to engage in a little intramural bashing.

Robin Williams, Helen Hunt, Rene Russo, Glenn Close, Susan Sarandon, Paul Newman and a host of other Hollywood types have given money to Dean. And while Clark is picking up endorsements and contributions quickly, Reiner ascribes a certain "flavor of the week" quality to his Hollywood support. Some of the people who "jumped on the Clark bandwagon," he says, have done so "without doing their due diligence first." He points in particular to Norman Lear, the legendary television producer who founded People for the American Way. Lear initially backed Dean -- he gave $2,000 to his campaign in April -- then jumped ship when Clark officially entered the race in September.

Lear is a fierce defender of First Amendment rights, and in Clark he appeared to have found a useful ally -- a soldier whose sharp critiques of the Iraq War have undercut any notion that you can't be a patriot and a protester at the same time. But Reiner said that Lear ought to feel -- and is feeling -- some concern after Clark said last month that he would support a constitutional amendment banning the burning of the American flag.

"I know Norman is upset about that, and he's going to talk to Clark about it," Reiner said. "It's like if [pro-choice advocate] Kate Michelman supported a candidate and then found out he was pro-life. This is Norman's big issue, First Amendment rights and freedom of speech and all that."

Attempts to reach Lear were unsuccessful. A source close to him said that he was "disappointed" by Clark's endorsement of the flag-burning amendment but will not withdraw his support over the issue. "He thinks Clark has the best shot at beating Bush," the source said, "and he has his eyes on that."

A lot of Clark's Hollywood supporters apparently feel the same way.

Ask Hard Rock Cafe impresario Peter Morton what appeals to him about Wes Clark, and he'll say "Everything." Then he'll tell you -- even though you didn't ask -- why Howard Dean can't win. "I just think that Dean will take down the Democratic Party like Dukakis did," Morton told Salon last week. "I don't think the American public is ready to elect a Northeastern liberal. Dean's a good man. I respect him. But at the end of the day, I don't think he can win."

Morton met Clark not long before he announced his candidacy. He and Jordan Kerner, who produced "Fried Green Tomatoes" and "Inspector Gadget," helped introduce Clark around Hollywood, putting him face to face with politically active celebrities like Lear and Steven Tisch, executive producer of the movie "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels." Last month, Morton helped Clark raise about $350,000 by hosting a benefit concert featuring the Eagles in a tent set up outside one of his restaurants.

Clark left the fundraiser a little early, reportedly to attend a much smaller dinner with Madonna. It's not known yet whether the Material Mom will endorse Clark, but plenty of other celebrities are now on board with him. Ted Danson and his wife, activist actress Mary Steenburgen, have signed on, as has music producer Irving Azoff. And although Laurie and Larry David and Barbra Streisand have each written checks to several Democratic candidates, they're all said to be leaning toward Clark.

"In the last six weeks, Clark has pulled together a phenomenal amount of support," said a political advisor to several Hollywood names who are still deciding where to lend their support. "When he has met with people here, he has come across as politically very honest and straightforward. He didn't come across like a politician. He was very comfortable in his skin and very smart. There are so many politicians who think we want them to tell us what we want to hear, and Clark wasn't obsequious like that."

Lara Bergthold, Clark's political director and herself an experienced player in Hollywood fundraising, said that two things are driving support for the general among industry insiders. "One is the perception that he's the best candidate to defeat Bush," said Bergthold, who has done consulting work for Salon in the past. "Two is that he generates an excitement in that community that they haven't felt with other candidates. He's an outsider, somebody who has an unusual and nontraditional résumé, and someone who is willing to speak truth to power."

Of course, not everyone in Hollywood has written a check for Wes Clark immediately upon meeting him. A few weeks before announcing his candidacy, Clark stopped at Dreamworks for lunch with Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg. "He was very articulate," said Dreamworks executive Andy Spahn, who advises the Dreamworks founders on political issues and attended the lunch with Clark. "He was well-versed in the issues -- particularly foreign policy -- and seemed to have a very inclusive and/or progressive set of values that he applied to a wide range of issues."

Still, neither Spielberg nor Katzenberg nor their Dreamworks partner, Democratic fundraising powerhouse David Geffen, has endorsed Clark or anyone else. Katzenberg gave $2,000 to John Edwards in the spring, but two grand in Hollywood does not an endorsement make. Neither Spielberg nor Geffen has given anything to any of the contenders yet.

"We still feel that it's early and there's no need to jump in at this point," Spahn said. "We have relationships with many of the candidates, and we're prepared to watch the race unfold."

The Dreamworks trio are among the biggest guns still holding their powder -- Geffen alone raised between $15 million and $20 million for Democrats during the Clinton years -- but they aren't the only ones. A lot of Hollywood's heaviest hitters are waiting for the Democratic race to sort itself out, said Margery Tabankin, the former executive director of the Hollywood Women's Political Committee who now advises Streisand and a number of other influential entertainment industry figures on political matters. Among those who are either spreading contributions among candidates or keeping their wallets closed for now: Haim "Power Rangers" Saban, Westwood One chairman Norm Pattiz, and Ron Burkle, an investment banker and grocery-store gazillionaire who moves in Hollywood circles.

Major contributors and fundraisers like these make the entertainment industry a key part of the national political fundraising system. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that analyzes political contributions, the movie, music and television industries have contributed nearly $150 million in federal races since the 1990 election cycle. That total places the entertainment industry eighth on the list of 100 "industries" tracked by the Center for Responsive Politics.

While most of the other top-20 contributing industries lean Republican or split their dollars between the parties, the entertainment industry -- like lawyers and labor unions -- tilts strongly toward Democrats. Over the years, Democrats have received 69 percent of the entertainment industry's contributions; the oil and gas industry, by contrast, has given 74 percent of its contributions to Republicans, and even more now that one of its own is running for reelection.

The entertainment industry provided unprecedented support for Bill Clinton, giving Democrats more than $22 million to spend in federal races in 1992 and 1996. Hollywood fell in line -- with even more money but a little less enthusiasm -- for Al Gore and Joe Lieberman in 2000. Gore lacked Clinton's starry charisma and had a wife who had railed against rock 'n' roll lyrics she deemed offensive. And Lieberman had spent so much of his time blasting Hollywood for forcing sex and violence on kids that the industry had little stomach for him as a vice presidential candidate.

"A lot of people in the industry put in a lot of money and time working for Gore-Lieberman," said a Hollywood political advisor who worked on the Gore staff. "It was infuriating for them to fly all over the country to help the campaign only to have Lieberman go around demonizing them for destroying our children."

Now that Lieberman is running on his own and, once again, attacking Hollywood, few in the industry are interested in backing his campaign. By Sept. 30, he had collected just $131,000 from the entertainment industry, the least of the major candidates other than the late-entering Clark. When CNN recently listed celebrity contributors in the presidential race, it named only one who lined up with Lieberman: Jerry Stiller, who played George Costanza's Festivus-inventing father on "Seinfeld."

That's in stark contrast to the kind of success Dean has enjoyed in Hollywood. His contributors list is a veritable who's who of the entertainment industry, especially those liberals galvanized and united by their dislike for and distrust of Bush.

Reiner, who has held fundraisers for Dean in California and is stumping for him in Iowa, first met the candidate a decade ago in the course of his work on children's issues. Later, he sat with Dean at a governor's convention in 1997 and talked with him then about the possibility of running for national office someday. "I just liked him so much," Reiner recalls. "He's such a straight shooter. He looks you in the eye, and it's not bullshit. And I thought to myself, Wow, this is so unlike any politician I've ever met."

When Reiner began to think about the 2004 race, he looked at the other candidates in the field and saw more similarities than differences. Dean stood out for his unequivocal opposition to the war in Iraq. "I got the sense that some of these other candidates were making political calculations and thinking, 'This is something I should do because I don't want to be on the wrong side of this issue and I don't want to be seen as weak on national security,'" Reiner said. "Dean is a doctor, and he approached problems in a very practical way. He'll diagnose the situation and say, 'How do we solve this?' instead of making a political calculation."

Clark's supporters in Hollywood -- as they do elsewhere -- whisper that Dean is too hot-headed to be president, that his anger at Bush doesn't play well on TV and won't resonate with more moderate voters in the general election. For his part, Reiner says that Clark's supporters don't understand that having a four-star general as a candidate isn't enough to counteract the Republicans' usual advantage on national defense issues.

Reiner says the other major Democratic candidates are compromised by the fact that they stood with Bush in the run-up to Iraq or waffled on their positions later. "I had a meeting with one of the candidates who promised that he would never agree to go to support without the U.N.," Reiner said. "Then, the next day, I read that he said, 'Regardless of whether the U.N. is being us or not, we should go in anyway.' I want somebody who is going to be straightforward with me. I want to be with somebody I can trust, somebody I can count on."

Earlier in the campaign, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards appeared to be the kind of candidate that could rally the Hollywood troops. He was fresh and fresh-faced, and for 15 minutes, at least, he was everybody's favorite. "Initially, John Edwards came to town and everybody put him on the casting couch and decided, 'Oh my God, this is Bill Clinton,'" said a political advisor to a celebrity who now backs Howard Dean. "He's charming and from the South, and they thought he would be a great candidate. But I'm not aware of any of those people who currently support Edwards now."

Another political advisor -- this one, an early backer of Edwards who now works for several celebrities supporting Clark -- said that Edwards never succeeded in capitalizing on the positive impressions he made early. "Dean really did a good job; he took his early support from Rob Reiner and really turned it into something," the advisor said. "Edwards was given full exposure and money and whatnot, but it just didn't grow the way some of us would have wanted it to."

The other major contenders for the Democratic nomination have done much better in Hollywood. Kerry and Gephardt are known quantities among industry Democrats, many of whom have contributed to their congressional campaigns over the years. As a presidential candidate, Kerry has brought in about $411,000 from the entertainment industry, including contributions from Uma Thurman, Jerry Seinfeld, Bette Midler, Jamie Lee Curtis and Disney chief Michael Eisner. Although that put him second to Dean -- at least before Clark's late surge -- Kerry has dropped off the Hollywood radar a bit in recent weeks as his campaign has foundered through staff firings and what is seen -- fairly or not -- as flip-flopping on Iraq.

Gephardt has collected nearly $300,000 from the entertainment industry, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. Chevy Chase, Morgan Fairchild and Harvey Weinstein have contributed to Gephardt's campaign, as have spread-the-wealth donors like Streisand and Larry David. Aaron Sorkin, creator of "The West Wing," is hosting a fundraiser for him later this month. Gephardt is particularly popular with labor-friendly Democrats in the industry, although that selling point may be diminished in the wake of Dean's recent endorsements from two large unions.

And while the political advisors for several stars note that Gephardt's Hollywood take has been modest -- at least compared to Dean's and Kerry's -- they said that Hollywood could become more fertile ground for Gephardt, despite his initial support for the Iraq war, if he holds off Dean in Iowa and begins to look like the most promising non-Dean candidate. "People who are looking toward electability and who [have traditionally focused on issues of] race, poverty and class feel a real affinity for him," explained one political consultant.

If money is any gauge, few in Hollywood feel such closeness for the minor Democratic candidates. According to the Center for Responsive Politics analysis, U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio had collected just under $40,000 from the entertainment industry by the end of September -- less than a tenth of what Dean or Kerry drew. Al Sharpton had received about $27,000, while Carol Moseley Braun had collected just $4,000 -- half as much as convicted felon Lyndon Larouche, who has been running for president in every campaign since 1976.

Bush has pulled in about $515,000 from Hollywood thus far. His contributors this time around include Chuck Norris and "Driving Miss Daisy" producers Richard and Lili Fini Zanuck, and reliably Republican celebrities like Tom Selleck, Kelsey Grammer and Bo Derek will likely lend their financial support to the Bush-Cheney campaign before November. Bush's $515,000 take is more than what any one Democratic candidate has collected but only about a third as much as all the Democrats taken together.

"At the moment, we've got nine candidates splitting the pot on our side," said Bergthold. Still, the Republicans have made some gains in Hollywood in recent years, particularly among younger donors on the business side of the industry and larger donors who play it safe by giving to both parties. "Everyone thinks of Hollywood as the relatively liberal set of actors we always talk about," Weiss said. "But you've also got studio executives and other business folks who probably spread their money around like other businesses do."

Still, no one doubts that Hollywood will come through big for the whichever candidate emerges from the Democratic primaries. And at that point, it won't be just the $2,000 individual contributions allowed under the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance-reform law. McCain-Feingold prohibits "soft money" -- the unrestricted cash that once flowed by the billions into the political parties -- but no one thinks for a minute that those kinds of contributions are simply going to disappear. Loyalists aligned with both parties have begun to launch so-called 527 organizations -- named for the applicable provision of the tax code -- that can receive huge donations from corporations, unions and major donors because they're not directly connected to the political parties themselves.

Hollywood money is already beginning to trickle into the 527s. Tuesday in Beverly Hills, Laurie David, "Seinfeld's" Julia Louis-Dreyfus, "The Fabulous Baker Boys" producer Julie Bergman and a number of other politically active individuals from the entertainment industry will host a meeting to introduce -- and solicit contributions for -- two such groups, America Coming Together and the Media Fund, which are working together to get out the vote and buy anti-Bush advertising. The meeting -- which Matt Drudge has hyped as a "Hate Bush" event -- is a step in educating former "soft money" contributors about the opportunities presented by 527s, said an advisor to one of the celebrities involved in hosting the event.

While the 527s are not yet awash in Hollywood money, political advisors in the industry predict that the floodgates will open as soon as the Democrats have a nominee. "McCain-Feingold changed the rules a little bit, but it doesn't take the money out of politics," said Chad Griffin, a political advisor who works with Reiner. "The money just gets there in a different way. The only thing it did was we all got a lot of requests to meet with people with thoughts about why their 527 was the best one. You'll still see a lot of support, and the people who supported the [Democratic] Party with those kinds of dollars will continue to support Democratic politics that way."

It's too early to tell whether the 527s will be able to match the prohibited "soft money" contributions dollar for dollar, just as it's too early to tell whether the entertainment industry will eventually support the Democratic candidate with the same intensity of effort it threw behind Clinton or the dollars it threw at Gore. But talk to political activists and advisors in the industry, and you'll hear again and again of one overarching goal: Beat Bush in 2004.

"Last time around, there was a lot more hoopla about the primaries," said one advisor. "This time, people who have differences [of opinion about candidates] are prepared to set them aside and say, 'We've got to beat Bush.' That's the overwhelming feeling rather than 'Our guy has got to get the nomination.'"

And the key to beating Bush, Griffin and other political advisors said, is for Hollywood to unite behind the Democratic nominee as soon as his identity becomes clear. Spahn, the Dreamworks advisor, said he talked with Bill Clinton about this very point recently. "He said, 'Andy, do you know what the difference is between Democrats and Republicans?' He said: 'Democrats always want to fall in love with a candidate, and Republicans just want to fall in line. We've got to fall in line with whoever our nominee is.'"

That message is echoing throughout Democratic Hollywood, where few are interested in risking a repeat of 2000, when Ralph Nader carried enough votes in Florida to deny Gore a decisive victory there. "I've been telling my Democratic friends, 'Whoever our nominee is, we don't complain, we love our nominee,'" Reiner said. "Whoever it is, we'd rather have him in the White House than George Bush."

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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2004 Elections Democratic Party Dennis Kucinich D-ohio George W. Bush Howard Dean