The Hollywood Campaign

Want big money to get elected to national office? If you're a Democrat, you need to head for the hills—Beverly Hills. A miner's map for the liberal Gold Rush
More

It's like an Academy Awards ceremony for liberals outside the Wadsworth Theater, in Brentwood, California, on a sultry night in early May, as celebrity-show television interviewers and perhaps a hundred paparazzi jostle one another and scream out the names of stars to get a smile or a sound bite. The occasion is a benefit for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental-activist organization that has become the hottest cause in Hollywood other than sending George Bush back to Crawford. And here they come, one by one: Tom Hanks, Leonardo DiCaprio, Martin Short, Rob Reiner, Larry David, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., all stopping to talk to the men and women with microphones about the need to protect and defend the planet from corporate polluters and their allies. Slipping through the crowd more quietly are Michelle Pfeiffer, Tobey Maguire, and Ray Romano. Also skipping the "green carpet" and sneaking in late, wearing faded blue jeans and a black Taj Mahal T-shirt, is the playboy-producer-philanthropist Steve Bing, the largest noncorporate giver of the night. Overseeing the event is Larry David's wife, Laurie, a former TV producer and manager turned full-time environmental activist, who has been working for months to make this the biggest NRDC fundraiser ever.

Along with the stars in the 1,400-seat hall are many of the same fundraising giants who have helped establish Hollywood as the first stop for any liberal politician or do-gooder organization. The audience boasts three studio heads, including Alan Horn, of Warner Brothers. In the late 1990s, together with the director Rob Reiner, Horn helped the NRDC get off the ground in Hollywood by spending three full days taking its founder and president, John Adams, to see the heads of all the studios and persuade them to support it. They agreed, eventually, and tonight the NRDC will get $100,000 each from HBO and Village Roadshow Productions, $50,000 from MTV Networks, and $25,000 each from Fox Group and the William Morris Agency. The environmental group has come a long way since 2000, when Cameron Diaz could joke, "When asked if I was into the NRDC, I said, 'I don't know—how does one of their songs go?'" The program is a mixture of high-minded politics and lowbrow comedy, with earnest but entertaining music in between. Afterward Laurie David, dancing on the sidelines in a slinky green Versace dress, throws up her hands as if her team had just scored the winning touchdown. The NRDC will be $3 million richer.

There really is gold in them thar hills. During the 2000 election cycle, zip-code areas on average yielded slightly more than $35,000 in political contributions, while residents of Beverly Hills, 90210, ponied up slightly more than $6.2 million. In the same year Pacific Palisades, Bel Air, and Brentwood were each good for $1.7 million to $3.3 million. In 2002 entertainment ranked first among all industries funding Democratic Party committees, and roughly 80 percent of the industry's party contributions went to Democratic candidates and committees; just 20 percent went to the Republican Party. From 1989 up to the start of the current election cycle Hollywood had given the party nearly $100 million for federal elections alone—close to the $114 million Republicans received from their friends in the oil and gas industries. Together with organized labor and the trial bar, Hollywood is now one of the three pillars of the Democrats' financial structure. Say what you will about the rigors of fundraising, it's got to be a lot more fun to hang poolside at Pacific Palisades with Sharon Stone and Cameron Diaz than at the annual AFL-CIO retreat in Bal Harbour with John Sweeney and Richard Trumka.

In the crucial currency called celebrity, the Republicans can barely scrape together two bits. True, Arnold Schwarzenegger is a Republican, and a member in good standing of the Hollywood community. And the Republicans Mel Gibson, Charlton Heston, Tom Selleck, Bruce Willis, Shannen Doherty, Chuck Norris, and Kelsey Grammer live in Hollywood. But even with the outsize presence of Schwarzenegger, what the Republicans offer isn't much. Within the industry the left-leaning is so pervasive that the former sex kitten Bo Derek, named to the board of the Kennedy Center by George W. Bush, complains that she is treated as "some hateful monster" by Hollywood liberals, and says, "I'm told I'll never work again."

Raising money in Hollywood is far more complicated than it used to be, now that campaign-finance reform has disallowed unlimited soft-money contributions. (Soft money goes to party committees and organizations; hard money goes directly to candidates.) There is no central headquarters anymore. Thirty years ago the only man you'd need to see while running for office would be Lew Wasserman, the unchallenged titan of MCA and the last "king of Holly-wood," as Connie Bruck's recent biography crowned him. Wasserman, whose close friendship with President Lyndon Johnson transcended politics and commerce and whose personal power in the industry remains an unapproachable goal for any mogul today, would have a few calls made, and you'd leave with whatever he thought was appropriate. There was no sense in anyone's risking Wasserman's ire to hold on to a measly few thousand bucks—or even a few tens of thousands. Lloyd Hand, a Texas lawyer who helped with Johnson's 1964 presidential campaign, recalled in Bruck's book, "An invitation to Lew's house was like an invitation to the president's house—a command performance." Stragglers would get a call from Wasserman's social-affairs assistant, Ann O'Connor, asking, "Are you taking a table? May I report to Mr. Wasserman that you will be doing so?"

Wasserman, who died in 2002, was also a talent spotter. The producer Sean Daniel, who worked for him, tells a story of the day in the late 1980s when Wasserman summoned him to meet a young Arkansas governor about whom, Daniel says, "Lew had heard good reviews" and who was "going somewhere." Speaking at Wasserman's memorial service, Bill Clinton later said he had been amazed that Wasserman would want to "spend forty-five minutes talking to a politician from a state that for all I knew, he'd never even visited." Indeed, Clinton recalled that when he asked Wasserman what he might do to make Arkansas more attractive as a movie location, Wasserman, "in very elegant and brief language," said, "Not much." Nevertheless, Wasserman took a liking to the young governor, and said to Daniel, "Let's see if there's a picture we can shoot down there." That was the only signal necessary. Biloxi Blues, starring Matthew Broderick and directed by Mike Nichols, was shot in Arkansas in 1987.

By the mid-1970s a range of alternatives to the Wasserman-centered power structure had begun to appear. There had been an explosion of young wealth in Hollywood, and a sense that the establishment, tied to the Johnson-Humphrey wing of the Democratic Party, no longer represented the industry's voice. The center of gravity shifted toward the "Malibu Mafia," which during the seventies was led by Norman Lear and the Hollywood activist and fundraiser Stanley Sheinbaum, and, later, toward a group of young actors and donors called "Network," which was centered on Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda, and operated from the couple's Santa Monica home.

Beginning in 1984 something like one-stop shopping was available at the Hollywood Women's Political Committee (HWPC). Sure, the members might subject candidates to some tough questioning. These hard-nosed women, led by Fonda, Barbra Streisand, the songwriter and current president of ASCAP Marilyn Bergman, the producer Paula Weinstein, and others, took their roles seriously. The vetting was guided by Marge Tabankin, the pro who ran the committee. But if the HWPC approved a candidate, there was serious money to be had. In 1996 the HWPC raised more than $4 million in a single night for Bill Clinton's re-election. Just a year later, though, the committee shut down. Its members no longer wished to contribute to the "money merry-go-round" they believed had become one of the central problems of American politics.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In