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
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.
It was a worthy, if quaint, sentiment; but money didn't stop being necessary. Today money and influence in Hollywood are more diffuse. One option for political supplicants, of course, is to find people with so much money that they barely even notice when they give some of it away. Ask about Hollywood donors capable of giving millions (not just a million here or there but millions and millions over a sustained period of time, to more than one candidate or cause), and the same names come up again and again. There is the investment banker Ron Burkle, a former supermarket czar who, individually and through his company, gave more than $1.5 million in soft money during the 2000 and 2002 election cycles, before gifts of that size were outlawed by McCain-Feingold. (Under that law hard-money political contributions are limited to $2,000 for a single candidate, once during primary season and once during the actual campaign, with a two-year cap of $95,000 per donor on hard and soft money for all candidates and committees.) There is Haim Saban, an Egyptian-born, Israeli-reared entrepreneur who made a fortune on the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Saban put up more than $7 million to pay for the construction of a new Democratic Party headquarters in Washington, D.C., just in time to beat the restrictions on soft-money giving. In all he donated $10 million of soft money to the Democratic Party during the 2002 election cycle.
And then there is the dashing Steve Bing, who manages to maintain his boyish, almost adolescent good looks despite a few lines on his face and a head of closely cropped gray hair. A film producer and real-estate heir, he has been nicknamed "Bing Laden" and called a "spermicidal maniac" by London tabloids, owing to his various romantic entanglements. (When the actress Elizabeth Hurley announced that she was pregnant with Bing's child, he issued a news release claiming that she had chosen "to be a single mother" and stating that their relationship was a non-exclusive one. He began proceedings to force a DNA test, which resulted in his accepting responsibility for the child. Bing also sued the billionaire corporate raider Kirk Kerkorian for invasion of privacy after Kerkorian had an employee grab some dental floss out of Bing's garbage in an attempt to prove that Bing was the father of his ex-wife's daughter.) The eyebrow-raising details of his private life notwithstanding, Bing is particularly popular in Hollywood because he is uninterested in receiving credit for his generosity. One fundraiser says, "My dream is to be able to say, 'Oh, just shut up and write the goddamn check, will you?'" This is what Steve Bing does. And what checks they turn out to be! Rob Reiner says that when the NRDC needed $1.7 million to finish building its Santa Monica headquarters, he made a single call to Steve Bing, asking him to meet with John Adams. Bing agreed, and soon after the money was there. (Bing would not talk about this, or anything else about himself, when asked.)
The Center for Responsive Politics calculates Bing's (pre-McCain-Feingold) 2002-cycle donations to the Democrats at $8.7 million. Recently George Soros came to Hollywood to raise money in a series of private billionaire-to-billionaire meetings for America Coming Together and The Media Fund, the coordinated anti-Bush organizations created to fit within the strictures of campaign-finance laws, to which he has promised $10 million. A kind of shadow Democratic Party, ACT and The Media Fund (under the joint fundraising umbrella of Victory Campaign 2004) are 527 organizations: they independently raise and spend money to identify voters and buy air time for advertising. These and other 527 organizations, on the left and the right, have come in for a lot of heat, because contributions are unlimited so long as the organization does not communicate with any candidate or official party committee—and everyone suspects that the concept "does not communicate" has been vitiated by Talmudic parsing. I'm told that after seeing Soros, Bing upped his contribution from $2 million to nearly $7 million, just like that. No wonder the constant refrain from the politically connected in Hollywood is "What we need more than anything is more Steve Bings."
Or Barbra Streisands. Famously, Barbra Streisand does not shut up and do anything. She is constantly giving speeches, faxing memos, and updating her political views on Barbrastreisand.com. Loathed on the right, Streisand is sometimes ribbed even by writers on the left. (After hearing her speak at the Kennedy School at Harvard, Frank Rich joked, "It's not enough for Ms. Streisand just to make her movies better anymore—there's a whole country out there.") But the money she raised through her benefit concerts made her for years perhaps the single biggest individual funder of liberal causes in America—at least until George Soros got into the act. In 2000, on the night Al Gore was nominated, she headlined a benefit for the Democratic National Committee in Los Angeles's Shrine Auditorium, which grossed $5.2 million. A single performance for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2002 raised about $6 million. A June concert at which she sang lyrics to "People" revised by Alan and Marilyn Bergman (calling Donald Rumsfeld "the spookiest person in the world" and saying she was "scared out of my Wolfowitz") raised $5 million for the DNC and John Kerry. Streisand remains the object of considerable affection in Hollywood. The fact is, most people there agree with what she says, and she puts her money where her mouth is.
The dirty little secret of Hollywood is that with few exceptions, stars don't pay. They show up, look pretty, and on occasion even demand a check themselves. This goes unchallenged and usually unmentioned by most of Hollywood, because nobody has any interest in calling attention to it. The stars don't want the public to know that they stiff the candidates and causes with which they are associated. The fundraisers for these candidates and causes have no desire to alienate the very people they spend so much time begging for a drop-by. Agents and managers who arrange the appearances are accustomed to getting all kinds of goodies in exchange for a sprinkling of their clients' fabulousness.
The only celebrity donors who come close to Streisand's level of financial commitment are Robert Redford and Paul Newman, and neither one of them seems to want much to do with Hollywood. Meanwhile, Streisand—acting on the advice of people such as her longtime friend Marilyn Bergman, a member of Streisand's foundation board, and her friend and adviser Marge Tabankin—every year sends out scores of checks that together total anywhere from $600,000 to $1 million, to such advocacy organizations as the Center for Public Integrity, which documents corporate and political malfeasance, and Homies Unidos, a group in Los Angeles that tries to keep kids out of gangs. If you want to get inside Streisand's political pocketbook, you have to go through Tabankin, who receives on the order of a thousand requests a year.
Scenes like the NRDC fundraiser arouse no end of hostility and mockery within the media, and especially among conservatives. After a recent celebrity-filled preview of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, Bill O'Reilly said the access of Bush-fighting Hollywood activists to the "profitable and pervasive" "celebrity media" was a "Leni Riefenstahl Third Reich propaganda proposition, where what they say and do is put in everybody's face." When in 2002 it was revealed that Al Gore had consulted with Rob Reiner before giving a speech on Iraq, the columnist Charles Krauthammer observed that while Bush was relying on the likes of Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Donald Rumsfeld, Gore was "huddling with Meathead"—a reference to Reiner's role as Archie Bunker's son-in-law on All in the Family. The New Republic's literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, has complained of "insulated and bubble-headed … Hollywood actors [who] are even more out of touch than elected politicians." Hollywood's high profile makes any dumb remarks very, very public. Consider the pop star Jessica Simpson's recent comment to Gale Norton, who had been introduced to her as the Secretary of the Interior: "You've done a nice job decorating the White House."
Yes, Hollywood's wealth notwithstanding, its activists are by and large liberal. Like an Ivy League humanities department or a folksingers' convention, Hollywood attracts that kind of people. They give their dollars to protect the environment, to secure a woman's right to abortion, to promote the rights of gay people to marry, to help prevent the spread of AIDS in Africa, to oppose virtually every aspect of President Bush's foreign policy. By mainstream American political standards, the groups that compete with one another to be the group in Hollywood—the NRDC, the ACLU, People for the American Way, Artists for a New South Africa—are all quite liberal. In Hollywood circles, though, supporting such groups is no more controversial than heading up a campaign for a cancer clinic in Nashville or for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. And exactly why so many people in the media find it less objectionable, say, for the CEO of General Motors to lobby for relaxed auto-emission standards than for an actor or a director to contribute to a campaign for clean air is not immediately apparent. Indeed, among the tiny percentage of Americans who do contribute large amounts of money to political campaigns (the number who give a thousand dollars or more to any candidate hovers around one tenth of one percent of the population), Hollywood contributors are almost alone in not trying to buy themselves anything so concrete as a tax break or a watered-down regulation. Although the entertainment industry itself does have corporate PACs, which do the industry's bidding and spread its wealth accordingly, most of the contributions handed out by individual members of the entertainment industry are ideological money that buys them nothing.
Former senator Gary Hart—who made the Hollywood rounds numerous times as a candidate, topping off his campaign accounts before heading back to the hustings—says that right-wing attacks on the "Hollywood connection" have little impact. Although Hollywood was once viewed as the sin capital of America, Hart says, Ronald Reagan's presidency neutralized that notion: "After all, he came out of that industry, so how could his admirers continue to demonize it?" Hart recalls that when he ran for the Senate as a "rookie," in 1974, Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson came to conservative Colorado to campaign for him, and no one made it an issue. He says, "The only danger [is] if you give the appearance of having been captured by Hollywood, and you have become starstruck. Otherwise, I think we're beyond that."
The famously misanthropic comedian Larry David says that the biggest surprise he's had since growing into a "rich prick" (following a lifetime as a "poor schmuck") is his discovery of altruism in the people who contribute to the causes of his wife, Laurie. He is, he claims, "amazed at how generous these people are." "In business," he says, "they've earned the reputation of being selfish and ruthless. You would expect artists to give. But all the executives—you wouldn't expect them to be generous, would you?"
The billionaire entertainment mogul David Geffen raised about $20 million for the President and his party during the Clinton years—perhaps as much as anyone else in the country. All he got was a sleepover in the Lincoln Bedroom and the knowledge that he was part of the inner circle of Clinton's "go-to" guys in town—hardly the sort of quid pro quo one suspects when the President's friend and top contributor is, say, Enron's Kenneth Lay. Of course, for an openly gay man of modest birth (Geffen's parents sold bras in Brooklyn), such attention may not be negligible. Roger Lowenstein, a former scriptwriter for L.A. Law who is married to a former studio executive, speaks of what he calls the "mutual masturbation that goes on" between Hollywood and Washington—"they each want that thing that the other has and they can't have." Hollywood yearns for gravitas, Washington for glamour.
Needless to say, Hollywood offers nearly limitless opportunities for anyone seeking to expose hypocrisy in the lifestyles of the rich and progressive. Laurie David, who dedicates herself to fighting for improved fuel-economy standards and reviles the owners of SUVs as terrorist enablers, gives herself a pass when it comes to chartering one of the most wasteful uses of fossil-based fuels imaginable: a private plane. (She's not just a limousine liberal; she's a Gulfstream liberal.) One night I visited the home of the former TV star Heather Thomas (The Fall Guy) and her husband, the entertainment lawyer and philanthropist Skip Brittenham. I drove past SUVs and assorted luxury vehicles on what felt like a quarter-mile-long driveway to a mansion large enough to house one of the small Amazonian villages the Brittenhams want to save. Just the energy consumed by the house and all the vehicles would power a sizable chunk of Amazonia. And this was nothing next to the Sunset Strip home of Stewart and Lynda Resnick, where I attended a book party for the journalist and progressive candidate-conspirator-hostess Arianna Huffington. Guests picked at smoked-salmon and caviar hors d'oeuvres beneath twenty-foot ceilings supported by towering Greek columns. Each gilded room was larger than most New York City apartments. The house would not be out of place if plunked down as an extension of Versailles, save for the enormous bust of Napoleon in one of the salons. The Resnicks, Lynda told me, are the "largest farmers in America"; they are the country's biggest grower of fruits and nuts, and a member of the Sunkist cooperative (she urged me to try the selection of new Sunkist beverages at the well-stocked bar); they also own the Franklin Mint. Later I listened to her refer to the celebrity-laden crowd as "disenfranchised."
On occasions when I've mentioned such contradictions and blind spots to smart Hollywood fundraisers, the response has been not so much explanation or excuse as a plea for indulgence—as if one were, after all, dealing with children, children who are very good at sharing.
Speaking in broad terms, and allowing for considerable overlap, four kinds of people make the fundraising wheels spin in Hollywood: actors who dedicate themselves to political causes, raising money and consciousness without contributing large sums themselves; activists who seek to harness the money and the publicity of celebrity for liberal causes and candidates; private political consultants, who help rich donors navigate among the various groups and candidates seeking their largesse; and, finally, players—the major funders who raise or pay up the millions that make the game worth it.
Actors with causes are nothing new. Whether for reasons of public image, a desire for credibility, or the simple calculation—"If my privacy is going to be invaded and I'm going to be treated as a commodity, I might as well take advantage of it"—described by Susan Sarandon, the actor as spokesperson is a Hollywood phenotype. This sort of public figure inspires a degree of cynicism—quite properly, given how little is often required of the actor in terms of knowledge or commitment. Actors can often do as much harm as good to their causes. Madonna, for instance, did not turn out to be a terrifically effective spokesperson for Rock the Vote when it was later revealed that she had not bothered to vote in previous presidential elections. In an ad she was shown bikini-clad and flanked by two male dancers who alternated spanking her, illustrating her slogan "If you don't vote, you're going to get a spanking."
One of the most sought-after liberal actors in Hollywood right now is Brad Whitford, who plays Josh Lyman, the deputy chief of staff on The West Wing. He and his wife, Jane Kaczmarek, who plays the mom on the popular Fox sitcom Malcolm in the Middle, function as a kind of political unit on the Hollywood political-social scene. One night not long ago I was asked by a couple of liberal organizations to give a talk about the media and George W. Bush at the home of Ted Williams, the former CEO of Bell Industries, and his wife, Rita; Whitford and Kaczmarek happened to be listed as the evening's "conveners," meaning that they came over after work to schmooze with the guests and introduce the speakers. Like most actors, they don't have "real" money by Hollywood standards, and hence do most of their giving by just showing up or by signing letters and helping to attract the truly rich people they know.
Whitford and Kaczmarek are not strongly identified with any one cause or organization. Whitford later told me that the couple treat their celebrity as a commodity and look for ways to "spend it as wisely as we can." They began with children's charities such as Cure Autism Now and the Children's Defense Fund, and moved on to a variety of causes and groups, including clean elections, gun control, abortion rights, Death Penalty Focus, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Refugees International, and the NRDC.
A few days later, sitting in his trailer on the set of The West Wing between takes of a scene in which Josh is trying to keep his cool after a terrorist attack on his assistant, Whitford ate fried chicken and mused on the state of American politics with an easy charm that a political consultant would kill to capture. He said he finds it "kind of pathetic" that he is not only often asked to make appearances with Democratic candidates but also encouraged to run for office himself. (His reply: "I don't want to have to act that much.")
As Whitford was speaking, I recalled a time before the 2000 Democratic convention when I walked into a party at a beach house in Malibu and did not immediately find anyone I knew. Eventually I spotted one familiar face, though I couldn't remember why or how I knew its owner. I went over to say hello anyway, covering up the way one does. About twenty minutes into our talk I owned up to my confusion, and the man I was speaking with politely explained that this happened all the time. Few people know Brad Whitford, but everybody "knows" Josh, as I thought I did that night. It happened again when Whitford introduced me to the rest of the show's cast members on the set. When we exchanged pleasantries, they were out of character. As a fan of the show, I know these people, even though the people I know do not really exist. That feeling is worth many millions in political donations.
Whitford told me that he and his wife "max out" in every election with hard-money contributions to candidates, but that those checks are insignificant compared with the amount they regularly raise by agreeing to grace an event with their presence. He will "strongly encourage" friends to give, Whitford said, but he has not yet taken the step of making fundraising calls himself. He has, however, made his own anti-Bush commercial. Excitedly he described the ad: Cue mansion with palm trees in the background, music swelling as in the post-9/11 Bush commercials. Whitford greets the viewer: "Welcome to my home. Hi. I'm very fortunate to be working on a television show right now. In this age of terror and soaring budget deficits, when our President has proposed cuts in veterans' benefits and funds for children, I got a tax cut of over a hundred thousand dollars! Support the Hollywood elite. Please. Re-elect George Bush."
Although most of "above the line" Hollywood—the line is the one separating management and creative talent from the production side of filmmaking—seems to share a set of political attitudes, those who actually spend time putting their ideals into practice are quite rare. A familiar complaint is that the same people show up at the meetings, whatever the issue. The filmmaker Robert Greenwald, who has recently decided to dedicate a considerable portion of his time to helping progressive organizations with various film projects, is everybody's idea of a committed activist. So are Alan Horn and his wife, Cindy; Horn founded Castle Rock Entertainment with Rob Reiner and others before becoming the president of Warner Brothers. Julie Bergman Sender, a former producer, has inherited political activism from her mother, Marilyn Bergman, and can be found at nearly any political gathering. The producer Sean Daniel and his wife, Ruth Hunter, a staffer for the NRDC, are likely to be asked to help with any new political effort, as are their friends Phil Robinson, the producer, and his partner, the singer Carole King. The actors Mike Farrell, Heather Thomas, Danny Glover, Ed Begley, and Ed and Cindy Asner (her business card actually reads "political activist") all get involved, organizing pressure groups, study sessions, lobbying trips, and, occasionally, demonstrations, and enduring the inevitable snarky comments from the right. But in the past year or so, much of the focus has been on Laurie David.
A pretty, brassy Jewish girl from Merrick, Long Island, whose close friends describe her as "pushy," David is one of those people who carry energy as if it were a communicable disease. I first met her early last year, in Washington, at a political meeting where I was speaking and she was working the room, having accompanied her friend Arianna Huffington on a networking trip. Laurie Lennard was a booker for David Letterman and then a personal manager and a producer; she produced a short-lived sitcom for the comedian Chris Elliott, called Get a Life, just when her husband's Seinfeld was becoming the most successful sitcom in the history of television. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., her friend and political ally, likens her to "one of those [Holly-wood] producers who are always saying we'll order up a helicopter to get the shot."
At the final rehearsal for the big NRDC show, a day before the event, I saw what he meant. David simultaneously encouraged the performers and gave them criticism on their presentations; worked with the writers to make last-minute improvements; and directed celebrity traffic (would Leonardo DiCaprio mind waiting five minutes for his run-through while Meg Ryan practiced her introduction of Robert Kennedy?). When Eric Idle rehearsed "The FCC Song," whose chorus includes the line "Fuck you very much, Dickhead Mr. Cheney," David handled the taste problem with tough-minded finesse, and Idle did not perform in the show.
David's enthusiasm for environmental activism puzzles some who have long known her (David herself talks, somewhat lamely, about a lifelong obsession with litter)—including her husband, who told me he had detected none of it until his Seinfeld earnings made her a rich woman. (Her line on this topic is "I want to thank my husband, whose disdain for mankind has allowed me to work on its behalf.") "I heard nothing about the environment for all our lives," Larry David says, "and now this. I wish she would at least take back her own name." As for professional advice, Larry's only note to his wife on her public-speaking engagements, he tells me, is "Not so Jewish." Laurie David credits Alan Horn and Rob Reiner with awakening her interest in the NRDC. A meeting was arranged with the group's president, John Adams, at Reiner's Beverly Hills office, and she was sold, she says: "John was like a rock star to me." Two weeks later Adams returned to L.A. with Robert Kennedy in tow to have breakfast with the Davids and cement the alliance.
David's combination of moxie and money has made her the It Girl of Hollywood progressive politics. She invited John McCain to dinner so that she could try to talk him into switching to the Democratic Party. (She failed.) John Edwards, a guest early in his presidential candidacy, was interrogated on his so-so environmental record. And then there are the fundraisers. In March the Davids hosted 200 people at a $1,000-a-plate party for Barbara Boxer, California's junior senator, who is up for re-election this fall. Larry David says that he forgot about the Boxer event, only to come home and see "all these cars parked." "Next thing I knew," he says, "Bill Clinton was showing up. I'm proud of my wife and I do support her, but there are other houses out here. Sometimes I think she thinks this is the only house in L.A. But what do you want me do? Stay up in my room? I do roll my eyes a lot.
"Most of Laurie David's efforts are directed toward the NRDC and its campaign for stricter fuel-economy standards. But like every other liberal except perhaps Ralph Nader, David knows that the biggest target of all is George W. Bush, and she recently threw herself into a leading role in organizing Hollywood to support America Coming Together. Before joining ACT's finance committee, David sought entrée with a donation of $100,000. A number of Hollywood activists think she is taking a larger than warranted role, given that her wealth would allow her to be far more generous. These people, none of whom are willing to be named, told me that David tried to get away with giving ACT a mere $10,000, but was told that ten times that amount would be the minimum for the role she planned to play. (The biggest funders of ACT and its related organization, The Media Fund, are Soros and his philanthropic partner, Peter Lewis, who have given about $5 million each, and Bing, who has given $6.9 million.)
The question of just how much is enough is tricky in the Hollywood community. Nobody knows exactly how much money anyone else has. For instance, most media reports put Larry David's take from Seinfeld's syndication at around $250 million. Laurie says this figure is vastly inflated: "Maybe we'll get that much over the next hundred years." But Rob Reiner, whose Castle Rock Entertainment produced the show, told me he imagined that the figure could go even higher. Moreover, nobody knows just how much anybody is giving to anybody else, especially because a lot of people prefer to give quietly, so as not to inspire requests from others. Then there is the question of relativity. For most of us, donating $2,000 to a candidate or a cause would mean taking the money from somewhere else—skipping a vacation or buying a less fancy car. But if we had a portfolio of $50 million or $100 million, we wouldn't even notice. Who is to decide what is appropriate? Rob Reiner told me of the time Representative Jane Harman sat on his couch and asked him for $25,000 for her campaign for the California governorship, because "that's what Steven Spielberg is giving." Reiner says he replied, "Well, I'm going to give you even more than Steven gave." Harman's excitement level no doubt rose, only to fall when Reiner said she'd get $5,000. "That was five times to me what twenty-five was to Steven," he told me, laughing.
Talking to me in his office over salad and CNN, Larry David admitted that if he were married to someone else, "chances are [the NRDC] would never have seen a nickel from me." Playing to type, he went on, "Personally, I would give money away to people, because then I could get the personal satisfaction of playing the benefactor and have the obligation for the rest of my life. I would enjoy that." In the same spirit, he took the opportunity to deny that he bought his high-mileage hybrid Toyota Prius (for which he is held up as a role model) for any noble environmental reasons. "The Prius is the only car that didn't have that console in the way, which gives you more legroom. That's why I bought it. I liked the legroom and I liked the way it looked. The gas mileage was last on my list. If anybody says I bought it for [Laurie], I'll punch them in the mouth."
When I asked Laurie David about the dispute over her ACT donation, she did not exactly deny the story, but she did say that she is still learning how to give away money and thinks that $100,000 was "an appropriate number." She continued, "Larry and I didn't have two nickels together when we got engaged." When, suddenly, they had gazillions of dollars, she needed to learn how to write "a thousand-dollar check, then five, then ten, then a hundred, then half a million." "Then," she said, "you learn how to give million-dollar gifts to things you really care about."
David's high profile notwithstanding, there is on occasion something a little ingenuous in her approach. She told me, for instance, that she will never again support Tom Daschle, the Senate minority leader, because he voted in favor of Bush's energy bill. When I pointed out how important its ethanol provisions were to Daschle's South Dakota constituents, David was unmoved: "That energy bill is evil. What is this guy doing with his life? Sometimes the stakes are so high you take the hit. And this was one of those cases."
Adamantine adherence to political principle is nothing new, of course. Ronald Brownstein, a Los Angeles Times political reporter, recalls in The Power and the Glitter, his history of the relationship between Washington and Hollywood, that in the mid-1980s Hollywood liberals' "ideological purity" often put them on a collision course with even the politicians they championed. I called Barney Frank, the liberal Massachusetts congressman and expert legislative strategist (who is considering a Senate run should John Kerry become President, and hence was considering a trip to Hollywood), to ask him whether he thought it was a good thing for liberals to play this kind of hardball against their own. He had a strong opinion. "I think it's a mistake for Laurie David to tell Tom Daschle she won't support him because of the energy bill," he said. "It's never going to change his mind. Nobody is going to allow themselves to get in trouble at home to get Hollywood money. Money is a means to the end. Votes are the end. You'd have to be a terrible politician to confuse those two things."
In a town where people have agents, publicists, and managers on call, not to mention manicurists, pedicurists, and plastic surgeons, it is not such a stretch to have a personal political consultant. If a celebrity or a producer is giving a ton of money away, it hardly makes sense to do so without the guidance of someone who understands how to make that money go the furthest.
It is the consultant's job to know which organizations are doing the most innovative work and who are the rising stars of the Democratic Party. The policy institutes of the East Coast corridor do not play the same role in Hollywood that they do in Washington—bringing policy wonks and politicians together. Few people in the movie business are interested in the intricacies of policy for policy's sake. The issue at hand is always who can make something happen, and who therefore deserves to get the check. The heads of certain liberal think tanks in the East—Lawrence Mishel, of the Economic Policy Institute; Bob Greenstein, of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; John Podesta, of the recently formed Center for American Progress (where I am a senior fellow)—often strategize on the phone with Hollywood consultants, and occasionally make the trek to Los Angeles for a fundraising dinner. But this is nowhere near as intimate as the relationships these same people have with reporters, editors, and like-minded policymakers in Washington, New York, and Boston. When it comes to policy, Hollywood is willing to sign on the dotted line and leave the deep thinking to others.
Richard Foos, for example, made millions when he sold Rhino Records to Warner Brothers and started a new production company. He always gave a certain amount of money to politicians and causes. This year George W. Bush inspired him to step up his political giving, and he is planning to triple his donations. Foos knew he didn't know all he needed to about how to make his money work the way he wanted it to. Fortunately, he had already become friendly with someone whose life's work is directing such giving: Marge Tabankin.
Tabankin is the dean, or perhaps the den mother, of Hollywood political consultants. An activist since the 1960s, when she worked with the community organizer Saul Alinsky, she became the director of VISTA under President Jimmy Carter, and later the director of the Hollywood Women's Political Committee. Tabankin provides much of political Hollywood's institutional memory and a considerable part of its practical training and education. In a town known for its obsession with thinness, Tabankin looks not unlike a kinder, gentler Bella Abzug, with warm green eyes and an inviting smile. People who have worked with her describe her as detail-oriented and unimpressed by the trappings of celebrity that surround her. She can often be found in her office in the evening and on weekends, stuffing envelopes with her assistants and making important phone calls. At a fundraiser she is more likely to be worrying about whether the nametags are spelled right than to be gossiping with celebrities.
The fellowship of Hollywood political consultants is small, and its members take their politics seriously. Donna Bojarsky, who works with Richard Dreyfuss and Norm Pattiz, the owner of the radio network Westwood One, says, "Everyone believes Hollywood to be so seductive, but we all came from politics and none of us have slid over into entertainment." Along with Tabankin and Bojarsky, the top consultants include Andy Spahn, at DreamWorks SKG; Joyce Deep, who advises Robert Redford and Quincy Jones; Laura Hartigan, who left the Democratic National Committee to work for Haim Saban; and Chad Griffin, who is Rob Reiner's go-to guy. The consultants are political pros who know how to plant stories and can alternate between "background," "off the record," and "not for attribution" as skillfully as any White House press aide. They are paid generously by Washington's standards, though they are paupers by Hollywood's. Tabankin says that a typical fee is "five to ten percent of the payout"; this figure tends to hit a ceiling, she says, of about $100,000 per client. A successful consultant has two to four clients, but Tabankin estimates that no Hollywood consultant makes more than $250,000 a year.
This year perhaps the most visible consultant is Lara Bergthold, the Kerry campaign's deputy director with responsibility for Hollywood. In a sign of the new seriousness with which politicians take the entertainment community's ability to help, the campaign decided that Bergthold's position would involve both "creative" and "finance" responsibilities; that is, she would work on both message and money, rather than on fundraising alone. Bergthold, whose healthy California-girl good looks belie her political savvy, told me recently that in her first week on the job her biggest problem was not recruiting contributors and advisers but handling all the offers coming in. She is a Tabankin protégé: one of her first jobs was working with Tabankin on the HWPC.
The one Hollywood consultant nobody in Democratic politics can afford to alienate is Andy Spahn. Though no one at DreamWorks has a title, Spahn's corporate-relations portfolio covers a host of responsibilities in addition to politics and philanthropy, and he has a staff of ten spread around the DreamWorks headquarters, which are on a tree-lined street in Beverly Hills. Light-haired and ruggedly handsome, Spahn is about as buttoned down as anyone in Hollywood today—which means he wears an open-necked oxford shirt, a sports jacket, and khakis rather than a cashmere V-neck. Behind his quiet, corporate-smoothie demeanor lies a venerable background in leftist politics. Tom Hayden, who hired Spahn in the 1980s to work with the Campaign for Economic Democracy, remembers Spahn's getting dragged away by the police at an anti-apartheid rally, his long hair flying. (Another consultant recalls seeing snapshots of Spahn wearing coal-black eyeliner at the time, à la David Bowie.) After Hayden was elected to the state senate, with Spahn's help, Spahn went to Washington and became a top fundraiser for Democratic politicians and political organizations. He returned to Hollywood and helped build a series of progressive organizations before being hired by David Geffen. After the creation of DreamWorks SKG its three founding partners—Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Geffen—asked Spahn to handle politics and philanthropy for the corporation as a whole.
Those in a position to know say Spahn is perhaps the best in Hollywood at raising hard money—increasingly difficult in the McCain-Feingold era. It is now a lot tougher to raise $100,000 for a candidate, with checks of just $2,000 apiece, than it was two years ago to raise two or three million in soft-money contributions. Spahn and Katzenberg went over their lists and came up with around $150,000 for John Kerry's first big Hollywood fundraiser, at Ron Burkle's home. To the degree that Lew Wasserman's world lives on at all in Holly-wood, it does so in the combination of the DreamWorks partners' power and Andy Spahn's phone calls and lists.
To be a player is to be able to call the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, or Democratic leaders in Congress, and have them drop everything to take your call. It means you can get on the President's schedule—if the President happens to be Bill Clinton—and suggest that he make a few calls, and those calls will be made. Of the tiny number of people who might be said to inhabit the rarefied world of players, the most exclusive category of all in Hollywood, most have bought their way in. They donate millions or raise millions or, most likely, both. David Geffen and his DreamWorks partners fit into this category, as do Haim Saban, Ron Burkle, Barbra Streisand, and Norman Lear. But only one Hollywood player at this level gained membership without buying it: Rob Reiner.
Of course there's also Robert Redford, who in many ways represents the Hollywood player's idea of perfection itself. When the NRDC sends out a mass mailing, the return address reads only "Robert Redford," as if that ought to be enough to get any sane person to open a piece of junk mail. Not only has Redford shown up and raised millions for the past three decades, but he has developed expertise regarding his chosen issues that would rival that of just about any member of Congress, and, more to the point, his or her staffers as well. When you sit down to talk to him about, say, carbon dioxide emissions and their relation to chlorofluorocarbons, it's almost possible to forget you're talking to Robert Redford. What's more, Redford puts his name on the line to try to solve environmental problems by bringing various sides of a dispute together for conferences, seminars, and negotiating sessions. But the admiration he inspires is probably equaled in the industry by resentment of his quite public desire to keep as much distance as possible between himself and the traditional Hollywood movie business while making sure he remains one of the world's biggest movie stars. Redford lives on a mountain in Utah, but in the eyes of Hollywood it might as well be Mount Olympus.
Whereas Rob Reiner lives, breathes, and eats Hollywood. The son of the comedian Carl Reiner, he grew up around the likes of Mel Brooks and Norman Lear. (Reiner bought Lear's old, modest-for-Hollywood, country-style house in Brentwood years ago—the house in which Henry Fonda raised his famous family.) His comfortable, earth-toned office is ornamented by the Hollywood mogul's requisite movie posters and family photos. Although not particularly wealthy by industry standards (when pressed, he will acknowledge a net worth of somewhere between $10 million and $50 million), Reiner has political smarts that enable him to play the game at a level way above his pay grade.
No Hollywood partnership with a Democratic presidential nominee has been as close as Reiner's was with Al Gore—at least not since Warren Beatty helped run George McGovern's campaign, in 1972. Reiner and the campaign's chief speechwriter, Eli Attie, were the only non—family members in the Gore residence on that fateful December night in 2000 when the U.S. Supreme Court handed the presidency to George W. Bush. Conservative pundits may relish the notion of a onetime presidential nominee's huddling with Meathead, but Reiner is one of America's most astute and effective political strategists. "Rob could have made his living in my business," says Paul Begala, the Crossfire host and former Clinton aide.
The demand for Reiner's talents as a campaigner, a strategist, and—not least—a fundraiser is intense. During one of our interviews he took a call from The West Wing's creator, Aaron Sorkin, who agreed to help write an anti-Bush commercial Reiner had promised to make for MoveOn.org. When Al Gore announced in 2002, on 60 Minutes, that he had decided against running for President, Reiner came to work the next morning to find four phone messages waiting for him: one from Howard Dean, one from John Kerry, one from John Edwards, and another from Howard Dean. (He went with Dean.) For all Reiner's intimacy with Gore and Dean, though, their careers failed to advance to the next stage. National politics is a cruel mistress.
Reiner operates on all levels; for instance, he managed two successful California ballot initiatives. He works with Chad Griffin, whom he met in Washington in 1994, when Griffin helped him authenticate the script and sets for The American President, a film set in the White House. Griffin, who took two years off between the University of Arkansas and Georgetown to work at the White House, was heading for a job at the State Department; Reiner asked him to go west and head his I Am Your Child Foundation instead. With an ambitious PR campaign the two men helped assemble a coalition to prevent the building of a luxury golf-course community on a 2,800-acre nature preserve called the Ahmanson Ranch, in the Santa Monica Mountains of Ventura County, leading to the state's purchase and protection of the land. In their first ballot initiative they succeeded in passing a fifty-cents-a-pack cigarette tax and then creating a mechanism for distributing the resulting $650 million a year to pre-kindergarten programs. Reiner now chairs the state commission that decides how the money is to be spent.
Taking on the tobacco industry is about as expensive a proposition as can be found in American politics. Tobacco companies spent more than $30 million to bury the initiative; Reiner and Griffin raised $9 million to fight back. Reiner put up $1.5 million of his own, and his parents gave another million. Other top funders included Steve Bing ($1.8 million), Ron Burkle (just over $1 million), and Haim Saban ($500,000).
Reiner is unsure what he will do next. Initially he and Griffin were hoping to take on California's sacred cow, Proposition 13, which caps property taxes and hence starves public education, but they decided to hold off when they realized that they would be facing as many as a dozen other ballot initiatives this November. A prohibitive amount of money would be required just to get the public's attention. "We would have to raise at least thirty to forty million just to break through," he says. He is, however, continuing his work on legislation to ensure that children all over the state have access to preschool programs—work that will most likely result in a 2006 ballot initiative. Also looming is a possible candidacy for governor. Reiner did not throw his hat into the ring during the recall last year because, he says, he "didn't think it was a proper way to run a democracy." The governor's office is now occupied by Reiner's friend and neighbor Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose celebrity vastly exceeds Reiner's. Reiner tells me that he has entertained thoughts of being governor; a run would more likely be in 2010 than 2006 (when someone will have to challenge the now popular "Governator"). Don't bet against him.
On a balmy night last spring liberal Hollywood descended on the billionaire Ron Burkle's five-acre estate, "Green Acres," to get the first good look at its party's new standard-bearer, John Kerry. Burkle's forty-room, twenty-six-bathroom Beverly Hills mansion, built by the silent-film star Harold Lloyd in 1929, was also used by its previous owner, the producer Ted Field, for liberal fundraisers. Burkle, the supermarket magnate, is a believer in the separation of supermarket and state ("The first thing they teach you in checkout-counter school," he has said, "is not to talk politics or religion with the customers"). Those five acres of personal territory were saturated with politics that night. Inside the gates big donors—people committed to giving at least $50,000—were whisked up a hill, past a Spanish-style fountain, to the expansive house, where they got face time with the candidate and his wife. After an hour or so of schmoozing with the fat cats, Kerry went outside onto the enormous L-shaped lawn to join 2,000 other people and listen to James Taylor sing and Larry David tell jokes. When he took the stage himself, Kerry did a reasonable job of exciting the crowd. The evening resulted in $3 million in hard-money contributions for his campaign, and another $1 million for the DNC.
It may be true, as the Bush campaign spokesperson Terry Holt insists, that "this campaign will not be won in Holly-wood." But it will be at least partly financed there. And it will be financed smartly and professionally, with a view toward the main event and a wariness of distracting sideshows. At a gathering at the lush Santa Monica estate of the screenwriter Steve Byrnes and the lawyer Jamie Mandelbaum, for instance, the difference in sensibility between those in Hollywood who spend a lot of time on politics and those who don't was on clear display. One of the more casually political people in the room expressed a desire that John Kerry would "show moral leadership" in embracing gay marriage, and received no encouragement whatever—this in a group of people for whom gay marriage is perhaps less controversial than the heterosexual kind. Right now nobody in Hollywood who plays politics seriously is talking about how to make the Democrats more liberal. Rather, screenwriter after producer after actor after director at the gathering spoke only of the desire to help Democrats win.
During the Democratic-primary season various candidates enjoyed moments of favorable buzz within the community, and each—John Kerry, alas, excepted—drew on a substantial celebrity contingent. Since Kerry's success, despite his unpopular vote for the war and his near complete lack of Clintonesque charisma, everyone has fallen into line. (Ralph Nader has absolutely no fans in higher Hollywood.) As Julie Bergman Sender put it, "We are not in the luxury position of being able to choose the perfect candidate this time around. If it's John Kerry, that's fine. The house is on fire—we just have to put it out."
George W. Bush, who promised to be "a uniter, not a divider," may not have proved to be one in America as a whole. But in Hollywood, at least, he has kept his word.