George Clooney (and his dad) vs. George W. Bush

With the help of his son from Hollywood, Nick Clooney is campaigning for a congressional seat in a conservative Kentucky district. How far can star power carry them?

Published December 24, 2003 1:06AM (EST)

In "Three Kings," director David O. Russell's sardonic 1999 treatment of the first war with Iraq -- the one where George Bush I didn't get Saddam -- Hollywood mega-star George Clooney plays a cynical special forces officer disillusioned with a mission that's long on military muscle but short on a real objective.

"I don't even know what we did here," Clooney's character, Maj. Archie Gates, loudly laments to his superior just after the Americans chase the Iraqis out of Kuwait. "Tell me what we did here."

"What do you want to do," the officer shouts back, "occupy Iraq and do Vietnam all over again? Is that what you want? Is that your brilliant idea?"

"Fuck it," character Gates finally concedes. "I'm retiring anyway."

You'll hear that same note of skepticism -- minus the profanity -- from Clooney's father, Nick, a congenial Ohio Valley media star who's running for Congress as a Democrat in Kentucky's conservative 4th Congressional District.

"We sent 300,000 of our best and brightest on a snipe hunt," the elder Clooney says of the current situation in Iraq. "I seem to hear the people in our administration saying one thing and meaning something entirely different. When we say 'weapons of mass destruction and imminent danger,' what we really mean is 'not a sniff of weapons of mass destruction and apparently no imminent danger.' Saying something does not necessarily make it true, and simply saying it more often does not make it truer."

Like son, like father? Life and politics are definitely imitating art in this staunchly conservative swath of northern Kentucky. A Clooney is bashing a Bush -- only this time, it's for real. And though the election is still more than 10 months away, the congressional race here is already attracting national attention as a match-up of Hollywood star power vs. tough, homegrown conservative strength.

By all accounts, the Clooneys are aristocracy in this part of Kentucky. Nathan Smith, Democratic chairman of Kenton County, the largest county in the district, calls them "the Kennedys of Kentucky" (though that certainly isn't the compliment it once was). Nick's sister, Rosemary, was one of the iconic American singers and actresses of the post-World War II era; she starred with Bing Crosby in "White Christmas," and she remains a legend to older folks here. As a newspaper columnist and veteran television personality, Nick Clooney, now 69, has been a star in his own right. And young George is one of the globe's most eligible bachelors.

He'll almost certainly be back here in the months to come to help his dad campaign and raise money. But early indications are that President George W. Bush may visit the district to campaign on behalf of the Republican nominee to replace U.S. Rep. Ken Lucas, a conservative Blue Dog Democrat who's retiring after three terms in office.

Everyone loves a movie star, but whether Hollywood liberalism will play along the southern banks of the Ohio River is very much in dispute.

Kentucky's 4th Congressional District extends from the West Virginia line to the suburbs of Louisville, encompassing affluent and growing suburbs, urban neighborhoods, rural farming communities and the rolling foothills of Appalachia. Drive 25 minutes south from downtown Cincinnati and it's like you're deep in the Kentucky mountains -- a different universe altogether -- where the politics can be tougher than the terrain.

Despite the district's eclectic character, there's a common thread that weaves through all politics here: A devotion to conservative principles and personalities. It's true that Democrats far outnumber Republicans in the district, but that's misleading. Democrats here aren't like Democrats in California or New York. This place was never liberal -- Rudy Giuliani isn't conservative enough for the people of northern Kentucky. High-profile court and legislative battles have been fought here over the display of the Ten Commandments in courthouses and other public buildings, and since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, people here increasingly have voted for Republicans.

Last November, Republican Ernie Fletcher won the governor's race by 10 percentage points, giving the Kentucky GOP its first gubernatorial victory since 1971 and empowering the state party like never before. Not only have Democrats been getting whupped in state and federal races, they've even been losing the county courthouse seats they've held for decades.

Perhaps its no surprise, then, that local Republicans don't seem especially worried by the Clooney luster. Republicans are already taking as many shots at the son as they are at the dad. They sneer and call him "a Hollywood liberal," the ultimate political putdown from a conservative Kentucky Republican.

"I was an Army Ranger and soldier in real life," said Republican candidate Geoff Davis, a West Point grad who is back in the race after failing to take the seat last year. "His son only played one in the movies."

George Clooney grew up in Augusta, a tiny river town 35 miles southeast of Cincinnati, but his politics are of another place, another culture. Like fellow actors Sean Penn, Susan Sarandon and Alec Baldwin, among others, he has used the bully pulpit of stardom to take on Bush and the right wing of the Republican Party.

In a profile in GQ last year, Clooney was described as a "liberal's liberal who believes Mario Cuomo should be our president, and he keeps a photo of Jimmy Carter's 'ER' set visit on display in his bathroom." In an interview, Clooney described for GQ the problem with Bush: "The problem is we elected a manager, and we need a leader. Let's face it: Bush is just dim."

There's more -- much more. If voters in Kentucky haven't heard it yet, they certainly will.

During an appearance on the Charlie Rose show, Clooney attacked Bush's policy on Iraq and likened his administration to America's favorite organized crime family. "The government itself," he said, "is run exactly like the Sopranos."

He has also taken on actor and former NRA president Charlton Heston, a beloved figure in Kentucky who's afflicted with Alzheimer's disease. Before Heston had stepped down from his NRA post this year, Clooney was accepting an award and deadpanned that Heston "announced again today that he is suffering from Alzheimer's." When chided about the comment by Newsday gossip scribe Liz Smith, Clooney responded: "I don't care. Charlton Heston is the head of the National Rifle Association. He deserves what anyone says about him."

Heston fired back in response, comparing the former "ER" star unfavorably with his Aunt Rosemary. "It just goes to show," Heston said, "that sometimes class does skip a generation."

Given his obvious enjoyment in picking fights with the right, George is probably delighted that his father is running for Congress in the heart of Bush country. Daily Variety's Army Archerd reported last week that George will "indeed" help his father by raising money from his Hollywood pals. "I don't want to overdo my presence," George was quoted as saying, "but I want to support him as best I can from afar."

Already, some Kentucky Democrats are wondering: Is that a blessing or a curse?

George will certainly attract plenty of free media and campaign contributions. The crowds of donors and voters would be huge should he make public and fundraising appearances in Augusta, where Nick and his mom Nina still live, or anywhere else in the district. That has some Republicans anxious, but for public consumption, GOP officials profess a simple response: Bring 'em on. The 4th District is the only one of Kentucky's eight districts not held by the Republicans, and they're certain to wage a furious campaign to take it.

"When I look at Clooney, I see liberal, liberal, liberal," said Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "His kid will help in the fundraising, but some of Nick Clooney's own comments about the president will hurt him. Bush-bashing doesn't go very far in Kentucky."

Thus far, Nick Clooney does not seem at all uneasy with his son's politics. "I'm very proud of my son and proud of his courage to take positions on issues," Nick said. "I hope they talk about George forever." But dad could suffer political damage because of his son's beliefs -- and from his own liberal tendencies.

The good news for Democrats is that they won't have to totally rely on George to win the race. For more than 30 years, Clooney has been a fixture in the local and at times national media. He was the star of a hokey television variety and talk show on Cincinnati television in the 1970s, anchored the top-rated local newscast in the early 1980s, has hosted national cable television and Cincinnati area radio shows, published a book of his top movie picks and for 15 years has written a general-interest column for the Cincinnati Post, though he recently went on leave to run for office. He has appeared in dozens of commercials and has hosted benefits, political debates, dances, community events and more throughout the region.

"My face has been hanging out on the television screen for so long," he says, "whether they like me or not, they know who I am."

Though his political views have yet to be flushed out, Nick Clooney has already taken grief for saying he is in favor of "some" gun control. (Pissing off Moses could bring a plague of trouble, whether he has Alzheimer's or not.) Candidate Clooney is against abortion except in the cases of rape, incest or danger to the mother's life, and while that's a conservative view in many places, here it is unacceptable to many in both major parties.

"It's a tough time to be a Democrat in Kentucky," said state Sen. Damon Thayer, vice chairman of the Kentucky Republican Party. "Nick Clooney is just too liberal for the voters of the 4th Congressional District."

Both Geoff Davis, a self-employed business consultant, and lawyer Kevin Murphy, the other GOP candidate, claim not to be spooked by Clooney or his name. "The contrast on the issues that matter to the people is going to be serious," Davis said. Going up against a Hollywood star "definitely changes the playing field," he added, "but it does not change what we are going to do one bit."

"Any star power will wear off when the issues come to the forefront," said Murphy, a dapper and fast-talking New York native. "The 4th District is conservative and Republican. Nick Clooney is neither."

Indeed, Nick Clooney has quickly learned one political move very quickly, the popular backpedal. In his newspaper column, he has at times criticized Bush -- but, he's quick to point out, he criticized Bill Clinton, too. After initially asserting there was no way he could run from what he's written or said in the past, Clooney now appears to be trying to step away from some of his own words. Many columns, he claims, were written merely to provoke debate and "engender discussion."

Clooney does have some views that will sell well with Kentucky voters -- support for the mission in Afghanistan and for the troops in Iraq, a stronger military, benefits for veterans, opposition to the deficit-swelling spending we've seen by Bush and the Republican Congress. "I'm a common-sense Democrat; I am looking for common-sense Republicans," he says. "I know this district. I've lived in it for 30 years. But I want to get out and listen. I want to see what is bugging people."

Yet that might not be enough on its own, and some political analysts say that not even George will be able to make up the difference. While the candidate's hunky son might get some ink and raise some dough, the analysts say, he will be taken mostly as a pretty face in a fancy suit.

"Nick Clooney will bring some star power to the race," says University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato, who follows Kentucky politics. "And there's no doubt his son will campaign extensively for him. But I've found while celebrities can bring money and attention to a candidate, they can not elect them. And the 4th District of Kentucky is so heavily Republican and so conservative, I don't care how famous George Clooney is or how many times he campaigns for him, this race is going to be extremely difficult for a Democrat to win."

That leaves the candidate and his handlers to develop a subtle campaign plan, one that exploits George's celebrity while keeping the campaign firmly on a moderate course and avoiding the risks that arise when George talks about politics. "He would be here every day if I asked him," Clooney said of his son. "He has his own life, but surely we'll try to set aside a moment when George can come back and do a [campaign] walk-through or fundraiser."

Taken together, the Clooneys are "a Republican nightmare," gushes Smith, the Kenton County Democratic chairman. "The older voters love Nick and the women love George. They don't care if he is a right-winger, a left-winger or a damn Russian. They just know he is the hottest single man in Hollywood, he's from Kentucky and his dad is running for Congress. As a party chairman, I'll take that any day."

By Patrick Crowley

Patrick Crowley is a writer for the Cincinnati Enquirer.

MORE FROM Patrick Crowley

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2004 Elections George Clooney George W. Bush Iraq War