Sunday, February 25, 2007

Hollywood recognizes the star in Obama

By Andrew Sullivan for The London Times:

Hollywood is a very bitchy place, but usually the barbs are aimed privately and mainly at others’ backs. Tonight, however, as the Oscar public relations circus unfolds, the backstage buzz will likely be as much about politics as about movies. And the barbs that are being buzzed about are very, very public ones, and aimed directly at the front of one Hillary Rod-ham Clinton.

Last Wednesday the movie mogul David Geffen decided to unload to The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd on the prospect of another Clinton presidency. Here’s what he said of the Democratic field: “Whoever is the nominee is going to win, so the stakes are very high. Not since the Vietnam war has there been this level of disappointment in the behavior of America throughout the world, and I don’t think that another incredibly polarizing figure, no matter how smart she is and no matter how ambitious she is — and God knows, is there anybody more ambitious than Hillary Clinton? — can bring the country together. “[Barack] Obama is inspirational, and he’s not from the Bush royal family or the Clinton royal family. Americans are dying every day in Iraq. And I’m tired of hearing James Carville on television.”

Ouch. But why should anyone pay attention to the openly gay multi-billionaire who bankrolled the Oscar hopeful Dreamgirls? Because he has money and connections and just threw a huge Hollywood fundraiser for Obama, the Democratic presidential hopeful. In the past the Clintons could take the Hollywood primary for granted. No longer. And this year it may matter more than ever. Most of the candidates have decided to forgo public financing for their campaigns, and so the ability to raise vast amounts of private money is vital to their prospects.

The primary season, moreover, has become even more front-loaded than usual, with California probably moving its own primary up to early February 2008. Illinois and New Jersey are also trying to get a head start. To be viable in those three massive media markets less than a year from now you need gobs of money soon. And for Democrats, Hollywood’s moguls are where they get a large proportion of the loot. The fact that Geffen, together with his DreamWorks partners, raised a cool $1.3m (£663,000) for Obama last Tuesday night must have sent shivers up what’s left of the Clintonistas’ spines.

Worse, Geffen said publicly what so many in Washington are saying privately. Hillary is a terrible public speaker: liberals loathe her centrist, Blairite position on the Iraq war; conservatives hate her viscerally; moderates don’t actually like her even when they agree with her; and Bill still has a woman problem. Do we really want to go through all that again?

“I don’t think anybody believes that in the last six years, all of a sudden Bill Clinton has become a different person,” Geffen blurted out. Dowd, a liberal Clinton-hater, lapped it up. So did the blogosphere.

And if Hollywood has turned on Hillary, another powerful force in Democratic politics, the online net-roots, is even more hostile. Liberal antiwar blogs are apoplectic about her sensible decision not to grovel and apologize for her good-faith vote for the Iraq war. When you read their rhetoric, it is almost as shrill about Clinton as it is about Bush.

When Clinton recently invoked the trauma of 9/11 as one reason she gave the president the benefit of the doubt four years ago, Arianna Huffington huffed: “The Clinton camp is now reading out of the Bush administration’s wing-and-a-prayer book.” She quoted another liberal blogger: “Invoking September 11 when asked about Iraq is unconscionable. It is pure Dick Cheney, and an outright lie. It is not what a Democrat says.”

Things have changed when pip-squeak bloggers are declaring what Democrats can and cannot say. And last week the Clinton camp seemed taken aback by the hostility. Chief Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson fired back the following volley against Geffen: “While Senator Obama was denouncing slash and burn politics yesterday, his campaign’s finance chair was viciously and personally attacking Senator Clinton and her husband.”

The only problem with this line of argument is that Geffen is not Obama’s finance chair and has no formal position in the campaign. That gave Obama a chance for a cool comment: “It’s not clear to me why I would be apologizing for someone else’s remarks.” In this early stage of the game the Obama camp scored a big hit and the Clinton operation looked like amateur hour.

There are other reasons for Hollywood’s souring on Clinton. The Democratic donor base has been tapped and tapped again by the Clintons. For the better part of a decade they have shoveled money into either his or her pockets. Some are simply exhausted. Others feel they got the worst of the deal. Geffen finally lost it with the Clintons after the Marc Rich pardon. But some also feel in their bones that Clinton is the last, best chance for the Republicans to unite and save what appears to be a crumbling coalition.

They are also in the entertainment business. And they know a star when they see one. Obama is a star. Hillary is beginning to come across as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. His book is still — still — the top-selling one in America. When she starts speaking on a stage, the energy drains out of the room.

It’s ridiculously early for such measurements, but a tracking poll showed Clinton with a 14-point lead over Obama among Democrats at the end of January. Her lead last week was down to four points. And what does she have to get back on track? A ruthless political machine that only emphasizes the freshness of her opponent. Even her “first woman president” schtick has been neutralized. Why not the first black president instead? If you’re a Hollywood liberal, it’s a wash.

She wants the best director Oscar. But the way things are going she’ll be lucky to get a nomination for supporting actress.

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