From Bogie to Bono (and Elmo)
Stars and the pols who love them
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Gone are the days when the sight of a celebrity standing next to your local congressman meant you were about to hear a pitch for war bonds.
Since Congress started holding hearings into suspected Communist Party infiltration of Hollywood in the late 1940s, the celebrity infiltration of Washington seems to have gone virtually unchecked.
Truthfully, Bogart and Bacall leading a group of stars to Washington in 1947 to protest the so-called "Hollywood Ten" hearings by the House Un-American Activities Committee was more of a change of star power than the beginning of a trend.
Actor Melvyn Douglas delivered impassioned speeches for American involvement in World War II; his wife, actress Helen Gahagan Douglas, ran successfully for Congress, then lost one of the most bitter Senate races ever to Richard Nixon.
After successfully stumping for Franklin Roosevelt, Orson Welles considered a Senate run for himself.
But there was still a relationship between entertainers and politicians that respected each other's turf. Marilyn Monroe memorably wished President Kennedy a happy birthday in song, but as far as we know, never lobbied him on alternative energy.
So how did we get to today? Elmo is on the Hill promoting music education. Bono spends 10 days in Africa with Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, promoting the cause of Third World debt relief.
Part of the answer lies in the '60s.
While actor Ronald Reagan took over the California governor's mansion, stars like Marlon Brando and Paul Newman began to began to systematically offer themselves as spokesmen for causes such as the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements.
Paul Newman crystallized the new Hollywood attitude in 1968 when he defiantly insisted: "Who's to say who's an expert?"
As millions of ordinary Americans lost faith in government and became more willing to publicly challenge its decisions, the celebrity protester was born. Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted and, while Elvis and Sammy Davis Jr. may have been seen alongside Nixon, the music of protest took over the charts.
And it was the music that first formed a bridgehead in Washington and that bridgehead was built on money. Jimmy Carter's early campaign relied heavily on rock concerts by the Allman Brothers, the leading band on Atlanta's Capricorn Records in the '70s.
"He who's not busy being born is busy dying," Carter quoted Bob Dylan in his 1976 acceptance speech to the Democratic Convention, starting a trend for politicians to quote the music of the street to give themselves an apparent finger on the popular pulse.
A trend that culminated memorably with Ronald Reagan attempting to praise "New Jersey's own Bruce Springsteen" for what he believed was the optimistic, patriotic anthem "Born in the U.S.A." Springsteen's song was actually about a disillusioned Vietnam veteran.
But it was BandAid that was the most significant moment in the by-now-symbiotic relationship between stars and politicians in the '80s.
Bob Geldof and Bono presented themselves as able to do what the politicians couldn't and the politicians scrambled to associate themselves with the cause.
Celebrity causes became fashionable. Bono, who assumed Geldof's mantle into the '90s, visited the White House and the pope. And the causes wanted celebrity spokespeople.
Suddenly longtime animal rights campaigner Bob Barker found his calls for pet neutering competing for time on Capitol Hill with Richard Gere wanting freedom for Tibet, John Travolta wanting freedom from religious persecution, Kim Basinger wanting freedom for circus elephants and Charlton Heston wanting freedom for gun owners.
The causes won -- they got more attention. The politicians won -- they got more coverage. The celebrities won -- they got to show concern and compassion.
The Clinton White House is credited with bringing Democratic Hollywood to Washington, though the Reagans had their fair share of glittering nights.
But the real revolution of the Clinton years was the birth of the lavish Hollywood fund-raiser, even if some of them were held in Martha's Vineyard.
New individual campaign contribution laws made Carter's rock concerts obsolete, but Hollywood, on the other hand, is full of people ready to part with $1,000 for dinner -- and if Barbra Streisand chooses to sing after supper for a few hundred close friends, well so much the better.
But then people started to complain. Tom Petty and John Mellencamp asked the Bush campaign to stop using their songs during the campaign.
Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, refused to sit and listen to Backstreet Boy Kevin Richardson testify about strip-mining last week.
Perhaps the next shift in the relationship is at hand?
We've already had an actor become president -- why not a president who becomes an actor? NBC is kicking around ideas with former President Clinton. Who knows?
-- CNN's Ron Brownstein contributed to this report.
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