The Hollywood-Washington


By Ronald Brownstein

Pantheon. 437 pp. $22.95

THIS ACCOUNT of how the political powers of Washington and the show-biz moguls of Hollywood have entered into a marriage of mutual convenience is as depressing as it is encyclopedic. Though relatively little of what Ronald Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times reports in such massive detail will be surprising to reasonably careful observers of American politics, the cumulative effect of The Power and the Glitter nonetheless is stupefying: It provides conclusive evidence of the trivialization and oversimplification of politics by our new culture of entertainment and celebrity.

There is to be sure nothing novel about the relationship between Washington and Hollywood. As Brownstein is at pains to point out, it goes back to the 1920s, when the movies were young and their founding fathers longed for respectability. Like Louis B. Mayer, who established a connection with Herbert Hoover, most of them were first- or second-generation Americans whose sense of being outsiders was compounded by being Jewish; it was a "nagging urge for status, more than a clearly defined political agenda, that first attracted Mayer and the other moguls to politics." At this early stage Hollywood was primarily a source of money; it was not long, however, before it began to assume a larger, more complex and more influential role -- as a powerful medium for the amplification of political messages and, in time, for the formulation of them as well.

If Hollywood began as politically neutral, it soon enough abandoned that for ardent, if usually empty-headed, commitment. This occurred, as Brownstein carefully explains, first as the emphasis in political involvement shifted from studio heads to include actors and actresses, and then accelerated as performers broke away from studio control to establish their own economic and ideological independence. Men and women of exceedingly limited political sophistication but bottomless ego and self-righteousness arrived at the formulation that in a media culture not merely does fame equal influence, it also equals wisdom:

"By the end of the 1960s, celebrities were offering detailed, passionate and occasionally ill-informed positions on virtually every issue facing the nation. After another two decades, voters faced the spectacle of Meryl Streep addressing Congress on pesticides, Jessica Lange lecturing legislators on the decline of the family farm, and Charlton Heston debating Paul Newman on television about the fine points of nuclear strategy. Rarely any more is there a cause so ragged, a campaign so obscure, that it cannot find at least one Hollywood star aching to unburden himself on its behalf."

This bizarre show has much to do with the natural propensity of inflated egos to insist upon favoring the public with their display; over and over, Brownstein quotes "celebrities" who have managed to persuade themselves not merely of the sagacity of their views but also of the necessity of expressing them. Citing the fondness of glitzy Hollywood for liberal causes, Brownstein notes the "unspoken feeling among several of these extraordinarily wealthy and isolated people that they were more reliable defenders of the progressive flame than the imperfect politicians who actually fought the fights."

But however tempting it may be to blame the Hollywood-Washington connection upon the bloated self-importance of the likes of Jane Fonda, Warren Beatty, Robert Redford, Charlton Heston, Ed Asner and others, Brownstein correctly insists that the real blame lies elsewhere. "Hollywood has not trivialized American politics," he writes; "politicians, their consultants, the disengaged public, and the inexorable demands of television for abbreviated debate have trivialized American politics. We have all lowered the level of discussion to a point where stars can more easily participate." He quotes an actor named Ron Silvers who is involved in something called the Creative Coalition: "The culture works in sound bites. We don't have discourse; we have bumper stickers. If that's the way it is going to be functioning politically, you look for icons, images that can get the message across as quickly as possible, as effectively as possible. Nobody {is} better in the world than celebrities."

Not merely are they instantly recognizable, they are instantly identifiable with certain causes or values. John Wayne never fired a shot for his country, but through the roles he played in films he became a symbol of flag-waving patriotism; neither Jane Fonda nor Jessica Lange ever wielded a pitchfork in serious labor, but through the roles they performed they became identified with farmers alleged to be downtrodden. It's all make-believe, but in a culture where entertainment has become the dominant ethos, make-believe is all. Again, Brownstein:

"The expanding mobilization of Hollywood figures for political purposes has to be seen in that modern context of simplified debate, political celebrities and minute public attention spans . . . Celebrities have not caused the public to lose interest in politics; but their heightened political use is an understandable response to an uninterested public. Political campaigns and Washington's decisions occupy such a marginal place in American life today that it is not unreasonable for political strategists to believe they must bribe the public to pay attention by occasionally adorning obscure debates with famous faces. At a time when public debate revolves around personalities who stand as political symbols, it is inevitable that causes will deploy as spokespeople stars who are themselves symbols -- of intelligence, empathy, bravery, compassion, desire."

The problem of course is that in time we come to accept symbol as reality. Hence the long presidency of Ronald Reagan, hence the increasing frequency with which actors and other show-biz celebrities -- not to mention Bill Bradley and Tom McMillen and other emissaries from the intellectually rigorous world of professional sport -- offer themselves not merely as spokesmen but as candidates for office. Perhaps there is no small element of justice in this: A nation that lives for entertainment may well most suitably be ruled by entertainers. But there is also, need it be said, the rather larger risk that we will come to be ruled by incompetents, people who have no practical experience of governing but an infinite sense of their own rectitude and, as Brownstein emphasizes, their moral superiority to mere politicians.

The problem is nicely summarized by one of the many anecdotes with which Brownstein leavens his analysis. It concerns a group of women members of a post-adolescent Hollywood political group called Network, who were "earnestly debating whether to expel Rob Lowe from the movement for the sin of dating Fawn Hall, Oliver North's secretary." In defense of Lowe, one said: "The guy's been here making movies since he was, what, seventeen? He doesn't know anything." Well, another said, "I could never take him seriously again," to which Lowe's partisan delivered this unwittingly devastating rejoinder: "How could you ever take him seriously?"

It's the question all of us should be asking but, as Ronald Brownstein all too conclusively demonstrates, we find it a lot easier, not to mention a lot more fun, to sit on the sidelines and applaud the celebrities as they pass before us.