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Who’s Running the Conservative Club in Town? By: David Corn
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, April 05, 1999


NOTE: I am posting the surprisingly (for The Nation) reasonable if (unsurprisingly) not wholly accurate portrait of Hollywood conservatives with the following cautions: The author, David Corn, was provided with many anecdotes of the intimidation of conservatives in Hollywood which he chose not to print. You will note also that I am the only person interviewed who does not have to work in the entertainment industry and thus whose livelihood is not dependent on the whims of the intolerant leftists and liberals who abound there and whose graciousness towards people they disagree with, and especially Republicans, is on display at every Academy Awards ceremony. Note, too, that the only actors Corn could locate who were willing to be identified as Republicans are Charlton Heston, a living film legend who is beyond their reach, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is a studio in himself. It would be too much to ask a leftist like Corn to look at the McCarthyism of his comrades with a cold eye, or to ask why there are no Alec Baldwins or Susan Sarrandons or Richard Dreyfusses or Barbra Streisands (I could go on and on with well-known name actors on the left) who will speak out for Republican causes or make political propaganda films like Bulworth or The American President. There are such conservatives in Hollywood. Their silence speaks louder than words.

The Kazan affair was a gratifying defeat for the Hollywood reds. But contrary to Corn's sarcasm, it did show the continuing power of the Hollywood left. After all, the issue was not Clintonism, it was Stalinism, and even The Nation equivocated, saying Kazan should be honored for his art but despised for his deed. But for twenty years before this it had been impossible to give Kazan an award in Hollywood because he broke ranks with Stalinism! Anyone alert on Academy Awards night, moreover, would not have missed the fear manifest in the body language of Martin Scorcese and Robert DeNiro, two icons of contemporary film, as they hid behind Kazan on stage in the course of doing the right and courageous thing. Nor could they fail to see the hatred and rage in the eyes of Ed Harris when Kazan appeared. And this over an 89-year-old legend whose political sin was to have chosen America over Stalin! Now imagine you are a young actor, in a profession in which 90 percent of your fellow aspirants are waiting tables at California Pizza Kitchens, and knowing that the reactions of Harris and Hunter reflect the sentiments of a large contingent of people who will be making up-or-down decisions on your career. Ask yourself whether you would want to take the chance of expressing public support for welfare reform or for Republicans in this town.

Finally, while Corn's caricature of myself is for the most part artful, it over-reaches too obviously in painting me as someone who misreads leftists as a monolithic band of extremists this barely two weeks after my article defending Christopher Hitchens, not to mention playing the genial host to Corn while he was in Hollywood.

David Horowitz

 

"I AM IT."

So says sixties-radical-turned-eighties-conservative David Horowitz, with a chuckle, when asked to describe conservative political activity in Hollywood. It's a boast and a lament. A decade ago, Horowitz took it upon himself to challenge the political atmosphere of this stronghold of liberalism. For years, he had been decrying The Left in his mind, a well-oiled, coherent and influential movement deserving capital letters and its power in the media and academia. Setting his sights on Hollywood, as if a right-wing nudzh could alter the tenor of Tinseltown, was a mark of Horowitz's hubris. But he has had a dash of success. There is now an organized, if small, conservative outfit in town. It has no discernible influence on the product of Hollywood, no noticeable impact on electoral or issue-oriented politics. But about once a month, Horowitz pulls together a couple of hundred right-of-center people from the entertainment industry and elsewhere to hear a speaker from the world of politics say, George Will or Newt Gingrich. This group gathers at a fancy hotel, schmoozes and listens. It does not raise money or agitate for conservative causes or candidates. It merely offers a haven for Hollywooders who don't fit the liberal Democrat stereotype. In a community where only a few actually bother with politics and fewer do anything that can be considered right of center, the 60-year-old Horowitz has created a cell of his own with cocktails.

To open the Hollywood front in his crusade against The Left, Horowitz formed the Wednesday Morning Club, a group that now has about 170 members. The group was established the morning after Bill Clinton's victory in 1992 hence the name but its origins stretch back to 1980. That year, Lionel Chetwynd, an accomplished screenwriter (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz), was working with the Ronald Reagan campaign and hosting meetings where Reagan boosters talked up their candidate before Hollywood denizens. After a session featuring supply-side guru Arthur Laffer, Stanley K. Sheinbaum, a prominent LA liberal, chastised the attendees for flirting with Reaganism. "Sheinbaum pointed his finger and said, 'You are consorting with people who ran the Hollywood blacklist. I know who you are and I know where you work,' " Chetwynd recalls. "It was chilling. No one came back. A lot of people said, 'I'm with you, but don't tell anyone.' " (Sheinbaum vaguely remembers the event but does not recall being openly hostile.)

After that, Chetwynd, who was born in Britain and raised in Canada, backed away from electoral politics. Following the 1987 release of his film The Hanoi Hilton, a movie about American POWs that conservatives embraced, Horowitz sought out Chetwynd. It took Horowitz several years to persuade Chetwynd to saddle up for his effort to break The Left's hold on Hollywood. After Clinton won in 1992, Chetwynd was willing to take another stab at corralling Hollywood's cons. "I had had nightmares about the Sheinbaum episode," Chetwynd, 55, says. "But I felt that if we cannot have an alternative view here, it's bad for the Republic. We create the popular culture here, and there's no political debate in Hollywood? That cannot be healthy."

The two set up the Wednesday Morning Club in the office that houses Horowitz's think tank, the Center for the Study of Popular Culture. (In 1997 the center received $500,000 from right-wing billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife.) Horowitz and Chetwynd recruited actor Tom Selleck, entertainment power-lawyer Bruce Ramer (who represents Steven Spielberg), and writer-producer Bob Gale for the steering committee. Soon the club was drawing A-list politicos, mainly Republicans, as speakers. Occasionally a star or two were present at the events, but sometimes Pat Sajak was the most recognizable face. Last April, Texas Governor George W. Bush spoke at a club breakfast before 500 people. He assailed "moral decay" in America but steered clear of Hollywood-bashing. "I advocate abstaining from sex until you find your right life partner," he remarked. Senator Orrin Hatch appeared before the group and griped, "When I come out here [for a fundraiser] I get about $30,000. For Gore, it's about $2 million."

In January of 1998, Newt Gingrich addressed the club but ducked the hot-button, entertainment-related issues. (It had taken Horowitz three years of badgering to convince Gingrich to visit. "He felt Hollywood was a Democratic town, and the Republicans couldn't pick up any money here," Horowitz explains.) In March, more than 200 gathered at a club dinner at the Beverly Hills Hotel to hear journalist/pundit Chris Matthews. When he slammed Clinton and the "Vichy Democrats," the crowd applauded. When he referred to the "innate goodness" of his friend Al Gore, audience members hissed.

This is not hard-core politics. At the Matthews event, several participants said they valued the club because it allowed them to hobnob with like-minded individuals. "People come here for the enjoyment," one non-entertainment lawyer noted. "It's mostly social," said Midge Elias, a nutrition writer.

Horowitz claims only modest intentions for the group. "Lionel and I did not aim to change the Hollywood culture," he explains. "We have tried to end the McCarthy-like treatment of people in Hollywood who do not subscribe to the line of the liberal left. It was set up not to carry out a political agenda but to normalize Republicans." Horowitz's vision of Hollywood is harsh: "Republicans are treated like Communists during the Cold War. Republicans are seen by The Left as indecent, lacking in compassion . . . . The atmosphere in Hollywood is as bad as it was in the McCarthy period. True, there are no Congressional committees [pursuing conservatives] and no blacklist maintained by the studios, but a lot of people lose jobs daily in this town [because of their conservative beliefs]. Nobody can show you the proof of that for the obvious reason that no one wants to lose more work. The power in Hollywood is all on The Left. There's a graylist." And apparently this keeps conservative celebs from speaking out. "If there were a Susan Sarandon or Alec Baldwin of the right," Horowitz argues, "The Left would severely punish that person."

Can the power of The Left in Hollywood be that awesome? After all, Elia Kazan, who snitched on fellow Communists in the fifties, was voted a lifetime award by the Oscar pooh-bahs over objections from remnants of the old Hollywood left. "That the award would pose a problem," Horowitz says, "is an index of the power of The Left."

 

Left Out?
Not all of Horowitz's compatriots feel besieged by an oppressive leftism haunting Hollywood. "People have been asking me for thirty-five years if I was losing jobs because of my conservative politics," says Charlton Heston. "I've never felt that was the case." Neither does Rob Long, a successful, 34-year-old sitcom writer and club member. "It's never been tough for me," he remarks. "The default position in this town is liberal. But they don't run you out of town if you're not. The worst I've gotten for being conservative is bemused indifference. That's not so bad." Long notes that he has never heard of anyone not being hired in Hollywood because of politics. "I've read many film scripts from conservative writers. They're god-awful and deserve not to go anywhere. It's much easier, though, to lull yourself to sleep at night saying I'm not being hired because of my politics." On the set of Cheers, Long worked happily with two of the town's most notable lefties: Ted Danson and Woody Harrelson: "They were interested in talking issues with me. They were incredibly respectful and thoughtful."

Actor Kurt Russell, a registered Libertarian often misidentified as a conservative or a Republican, says that a few times he has been told that someone in the industry did not want to work with him because of his presumed politics. "I was surprised it would make any difference," he comments. "But I don't pay much attention to it. The bottom line here is the color green. And, in the end, they will find a way to shut their ears or eyes to make money in this town, and I'm very much for that." Edgar Scherick, a veteran miniseries producer and a Wednesday Morning Club steering committee member, recalls that in his decades-long career, he has seen "one or two occasions when a writer was deemed too conservative to get a job, but they got it because I stood up and said, it's ridiculous." And Chetwynd, who frets about liberal groupthink in Hollywood, acknowledges that his own career has not been hindered by anticonservative bias: "My political views are tolerated because I'm a good salesman and I do my job well."

Although Horowitz insists political discrimination is rampant and ideological intolerance rules, he maintains that his Hollywood campaign strives for no more than "to restore dialogue in the entertainment community. We've established a civil place." He wants to be a "bridge-builder" who engineers "honest debate."

This is the kinder, gentler David Horowitz, an author and jouster otherwise known as a fierce ideological warrior. Last year, after Steve Wasserman, editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, sliced in half a brief commentary Horowitz had written on The Communist Manifesto for a forum in the review, Horowitz sent a scorching letter to the publisher asserting that "Wasserman has an agenda in defending Marx." (Months earlier, Horowitz had praised Wasserman as a "fair-minded" fellow who had "improved" the book section.) At a recent talk at Harvard, Horowitz declared, "Inside every Leftist lurks a totalitarian" (not much bridge-building there). He assailed author/academic Cornel West as "an empty intellectual suit, he's not that smart, and he got his place because of the scramble for black faces in the university." Horowitz recently bought an ad in The New Republic that announced he intends to out The Left. The ad claims The Left is absent from "the radar screen of American politics." Thus, under the headline "Who is Left?" he produced a j'accuse list pronouncing Hillary Rodham Clinton, Marion Wright Eddman [sic; he meant Edelman], Sydney [sic] Blumenthal and what a shock! Senators Paul Wellstone and Ted Kennedy as national figures of The Left. He "exposed" the causes of The Left: prison reform, affirmative action, a living wage. He also ID'd Senator Robert Torricelli, a devoted anti-Castroite, as a leftist. "We think," the ad shouted, "it is time to . . . identify the political left."

Is such simplistic pink-sheeting the work of a man who yearns merely for civil and honest exchange? "I have various incarnations," Horowitz explains. "On campuses, I'm confrontational. In Hollywood, I'm not confrontational at all. I defend this town. Oliver Stone has been to my events. I have participated in Alec Baldwin's events."

 

Nonsupporting Actors
Horowitz is lucky; he has no competition. In a company town, where thousands of people vie for each job, no one else is looking to be the Mr. Right who leads Hollywood's conservatives. Not even NRA president Charlton Heston, the elder statesman of Hollycons, attempts to recruit other film celebrities for the right. "I don't proselytize," he says. The vacuum Horowitz was able to fill existed partly because the heavies most often fingered as conservatives or Republicans Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Selleck and Kevin Costner have engaged in little overt political activity. Their politics, erratic or lacking coherence, have not been those of the committed.

In 1988 Willis attended a fundraiser for a Democrat running for Senate. The following year, he and Demi Moore worked with radical-to-legislator Tom Hayden to shut down a nuclear power plant in California. In a Playboy interview near that time, Willis sounded like the stereotypical Hollywood lib. Citing water pollution and ozone depletion, he moaned, "We are literally destroying the planet." He blasted Reagan for dubbing the Soviet Union "the evil empire." He said military corporations had killed the Kennedy brothers and were "setting up [Vice President] Bush to be the next President." Willis argued that "this country needs a leader who can say, 'I want to help the people.' " Who did he have in mind? Hayden, the darling of LA's left. Then, one presidential election later, Willis was at the Republican National Convention in Houston backing Bush. In last year's Armageddon, Willis is first seen driving golf balls at a Greenpeace ship protesting oil drilling a self-mocking reference to his politics but also a reminder of his dramatic flip-flop.

"He's 'Get off my back, I don't like taxes,' " says Horowitz. "It's basically leave-me-alone politics. He's not involved in anything." The same is true for Mel Gibson, who is known for opposing abortion rights and being critical of gay-rights activism. "I've never even met him," Horowitz notes.

Kevin Costner is frequently cited as a celebrity Republican, although he no longer is. He did socialize and golf with President Bush, and in 1992 the Bush re-election campaign leaked word that he would appear in a commercial for the President. Costner, then a registered Republican, had no intention of aiding Bush, according to a close associate of Costner. He was a Clinton supporter. "We had to tell the Bush campaign to stop saying he was going to do ads," the associate says. Before the 1996 election, Costner switched his registration to Independent. He gave $5,000 to the Democratic Party and attended the Democratic convention. Still, he continues to receive invitations to GOP fundraisers, and in February the New York Times referred to him as a Republican. "He's not a particularly political guy," says the associate.

In the early nineties Tom Selleck shot a commercial for the conservative National Review. But in 1992 he made a $1,000 donation to the presidential bid of Democratic Senator Paul Tsongas. Five years later, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd reported that Republicans were urging Selleck to run for the Senate in California—a story Selleck quickly shot down. His political profile has been low ever since. However, Heston reports that Selleck has agreed to do an ad for the NRA. "He's not a Republican," says an actor who knows him. "He's an independent." In assessing Selleck's politics, a former producer points to his last major role: a gay television reporter in the gay-friendly film In & Out. "That was not a role or a movie to please social conservatives," she observes.

In 1997, after undergoing heart surgery, Arnold Schwarzenegger quipped, "We made, actually, history, because it was the first time ever that doctors could prove that a lifelong Republican has a heart." But as a longtime GOPer, Schwarzenegger has provided little tangible support to his party. In recent years, according to federal campaign records, he made one measly contribution of $1,000 to the Republicans. "He campaigns occasionally for the national Republican ticket, but he doesn't make a big deal out of it," says an LA publicist. In 1992 Schwarzenegger joined George Bush in New Hampshire and asked voters to "send a message to Pat Buchanan: Hasta la vista, baby." When Jesse Ventura, who has appeared in two Schwarzenegger films, was sworn in as Minnesota governor, Schwarzenegger attended the inauguration, as a friend.

Kurt Russell is irritated that he gets tagged as a Republican and conservative. "Republicans will call me [soliciting contributions], and I'll say, 'Sorry, fellow, I'm not a Republican.' " Instead, he has bonded with the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington. Recently, he hosted a Cato dinner in Los Angeles with José Piñera, a labor minister under Chile's General Pinochet in the seventies. Piñera, who pioneered the privatization of Chile's retirement program, has been a crucial player in Cato's attempt to privatize Social Security. Russell votes for Libertarian candidates, but he does not provide financial or PR support to the party. When Gingrich appeared at the Wednesday Morning Club, Russell, who considers Gingrich a friend, introduced him. But Russell, who has not otherwise participated in the club, made sure to declare, "I'm not a Republican, I'm a Libertarian."

 

Alone in the Desert
There is only one conservative celebrity in Hollywood committed to serious partisan activism: Charlton Heston. Each election, he slogs along the campaign trail for GOPers across the country. Last year he aided a dozen Republicans, eight of whom won. He has his own political action committee, which in 1998 raised $168,000. (He has solicited donations at fundraisers by reciting the Ten Commandments.) Heston realizes he is one of the few Hollywood stars who devote themselves to the heavy lifting of politics. "Most people in the film community don't really understand what being politically active means," he says. "They think it is just doing interviews." And that includes Hollywood liberals: "I'm content that the Hollywood left thinks being a political activist means riding Air Force One and hanging out with the President."

But Heston doesn't let politics interfere with work. He has been cast in Oliver Stone's next film, and he just finished acting in a Warren Beatty movie. "We had a lot to talk about," he says of Beatty. "We agreed on a few things." Such as? "Beatty is nontypical of Hollywood liberals," Heston replies. "He thinks Clinton is an idiot." And many prominent liberals in the film industry, he adds, "are hunters, skeet shooters, or gun collectors, or keep a handgun because of their public prominence. It is not widely known that one of the finest gun collections on the West Coast is Steven Spielberg's. He shoots, but very privately."

Apart from Heston, the Hollywood right is not that right. Most folks associated with Horowitz's club are pro-choice. At the Chris Matthews event, several participants said the Republican Party had to go moderate to rebuild. Steering committee member Edgar Scherick noted that he "hates zealotry"; he was put off by House impeachment manager Bob Barr and opposed removing Clinton from office. Sitcom writer Rob Long concedes there may be a legitimate reason for right-leaning Hollywooders to eschew public identification with the GOP: "The Republicans can be kind of weird. . . . Arnold Schwarzenegger has to worry that at any moment the Republicans will issue a platform calling for all gay people to be exterminated, and it would be very difficult to do business in this town if people think you believe that. If you look at Hollywood Republicans, you'll find pro-choice, country-club Republicans."

The Horowitz Gang is also at odds with the national conservative movement in the culture wars. Not surprisingly, Horowitz and his comrades do not wail about the culture manufactured by the hometown industry. "Hollywood deals in basic archetypes that are fundamentally conservative," Horowitz asserts. "The great empowering American myth is the individual against the system. That's Star Wars. It's a conservative message. I'm rather sanguine about Hollywood's product." One of his favorite films is Pulp Fiction; he claims he enjoys South Park, a raunchy animated cable show. He has urged self-appointed values-czar Bill Bennett to lower the volume on his public attacks against Hollywood. "I'm not in sympathy with ratings, the picketing of films, attacks on films," Horowitz explains. "The bottom line is what consumers want. If they like garbage, garbage will reign." Indeed, the Hollywood right can be downright liberal when it comes to content. "Nobody should tell anyone else what to produce," says Scherick. "That's the end of democracy. It's what Hitler did." Rob Long roots against the censors of the right: "I am a loyal Republican, but I don't want to see a show I'm working on lambasted by someone in my party." And even Heston, perhaps the only Hollywood rightist in complete sync with the social conservatives, dismisses efforts to control Hollywood's output. "I'm not going to be the monitor of my colleagues' choices," he remarks. "I have enough enemies as it is."

 

Eyes Are the Prize
What institutional Hollywood cares most about is putting eyeballs in front of televisions and backsides in theater seats. "Obviously, people interested in politics go to Washington, not Hollywood," Chetwynd observes. But for decades there has been a connection between the capitals of politics and entertainment. There's money in the showbiz community for candidates mostly Democrats, but not exclusively. (Last October the Center for Responsive Politics noted that in the 1998 election cycle, movie, television, and recording studios had so far donated $6.5 million to federal candidates and parties, with two-thirds going to Democrats.) A small number of stars speak out on issues they may or may not know well. Infrequently, a movie or TV show will handle a social or political issue. So the politics of the entertainment business attracts more attention than that of the paper-products industry. Yet, as Horowitz notes, "98 percent of the people in Hollywood have no politics to speak of, or their politics are an inch deep. People do what they have to do to get ahead in this town."

In Horowitz's script, that means they kowtow to The Left. But at least he has provided a chat group for those who don't. "We have created a platform in the entertainment community where a Henry Hyde can come and get a warm welcome and respectful hearing," says a justifiably proud Chetwynd. "The group is respectable. In that sense, David Horowitz has accomplished what he set out to do." The next frontier, Chetwynd reports, is to show the world meaning Hollywood that all conservatives are not the same. "Bill Clinton and his minions in Hollywood," Chetwynd explains, "have been successful in grouping conservatives as a monolithic band of extremists." Think of a mirror image of Horowitz's view of The Left. "We now have a social burden," Chetwynd continues. "I have to be allowed to be a conservative without people imagining I dress up in a bedsheet to have dinner with Bob Barr. People have to be able to believe you can be a conservative and still be a good person."

In Hollywood, that is the battle conservatives believe they are fighting. It is a skirmish unlikely to affect what occurs in Washington (or Sacramento), or what happens on the campaign trail, or what is coming soon to a theater near you.




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