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02.26.11

Clooney Takes On His Critics

In unpublished excerpts from Newsweek's cover story, the actor talks to John Avlon about his first trip to Sudan, the inflated partisan divide over the crisis, and Sean Penn's Haiti work.

In unpublished excerpts from Newsweek's cover story, the actor talks to John Avlon about his first trip to Sudan, the religious right's positive role there, critics of his activism—and Sean Penn's Haiti work. Plus, read Avlon's Newsweek cover story about George Clooney.

In early January, I spent five days witnessing the birth of a new nation in South Sudan,  traveling alongside George Clooney on assignment for Newsweek.

The subsequent cover story has been on newsstands this past week, detailing the rise of the "celebrity statesman"—stars who are trying to leverage their celebrity to get people to care about something more important than celebrity. In Clooney's case, this includes being a catalyst to draw international attention to the referendum which put South Sudan on the road to independence after decades of civil war.

But out of the 3,000-word article, three sentences have dominated the news-buzz surrounding the piece—a candid and colorful admission by Clooney that he hadn't lived his life right for conventional politics and instead has opted for a different kind of public service. It's the kind of honesty that contrasts usefully with the false airs of perfection we've come to expect from politicians—and helps describe why celebrity statesmen are in the surreal position of having more credibility than politicians on some issues. But the quote about "bong-water" and women wasn't just picked up gossip pages, but highlighted by serious news sources, from The New York Times to the Today Show. The mini-furor was an ironic distraction, echoing a story Clooney had told me which ended up on the cutting room floor.

Gallery: Celebrity Statesman

It seems that after an earlier trip to Sudan, Clooney landed in Switzerland and emerged from the plane to find a dozen paparazzi in wait, shouting questions about Lindsey Lohan's most recent trip to rehab. "I pointed at them and said, ‘right now it's time for grown-ups,'" Clooney recalled. "And I really think that's how we should feel about all the attention that we spend on all of this crap. It makes no difference. It's chewing gum. You know, the sugar gets out of the gum in about 30 seconds and then your jaw gets tired from chewing... It's just distractions for no purpose."

Building off this perspective—and given the amount of content available—we thought it would be interesting for Daily Beast readers to see some additional quotes from and about Clooney—as well as deleted scenes from the trip—free from the restrictions of print space.

Clooney on his first trip to Sudan in 2006: "When you first get to Darfur and you see burned villages and women with their legs cut off, and children who've been murdered, mother's pulling the heads of their kids out of wells, wells that have been poisoned and young boys that have been recruited and old men who have been massacred, you sit there and you go ‘I want a god-damned plane that says U.N. on it to come over and go bomb the shit out of these mother-fuckers.' That's your first reaction—but as time goes on what you realize is in order for there to be peace and in order for this to work we're going to have to evolve."

Clooney on navigating the news-cycle: "I know how the news works. I've traveled with reporters where we've gone to refugee camps and they say 'this one isn't tragic enough, let's go find a more tragic story.' I understand why. You know: 'Nobody died today. News at 11:00—all the film on everybody living happily.' That doesn't really play. But our job is to say ‘if we don't pay attention to this area it will explode' and try to bring the focus there. Keep it going, keep the pressure on."

Clooney on the Religious Right in Sudan: "The religious right were leaders of this issue, Darfur in particular. The church groups had missionaries in this area for years and years, huge leaders in getting this movement going. And it was a funny coalition, because it was hardcore church members and then hardcore student groups—which are not necessarily at all cohesive, but they were together. So the truth is that all of this labeling and all of this polarization stuff really comes through talk radio and talking head news...The truth is they don't hate each other. They all get along."

Clooney on critics of his activism in Sudan: "I hear that all the time—‘Oh, why should we listen to the actor-vist.' And I go, ‘well then get out of my way.' Because we're doing everything we can to try and help people to save people's lives. And if you don't like me or you think I'm too liberal or whatever, then don't participate. But get out of the way. Because we're going forward. We're going forward with a lot of people from the right. We're going forward with a lot of people from the left. And a lot of religious organizations and people in colleges who believe that there is no right or left to saving people's lives. There's no two-sides to this issue."

Clooney on Sean Penn's relief work in Haiti:  "Whether people want to love him or hate him, the truth of the matter is Sean Penn has lived in Haiti for a year. And you can't do Haiti-lite. He's not staying at the Bel-Air Hotel and dipping his toe in. He's in there, sleeping in funky places, sweating and risking a lot—not just his life, but his health and his sanity—to try and not just bring attention but actually physically build something. He's a tremendous example of the best use of celebrity."

Clooney on the limits of celebrity: "I would caution against this idea that actors and celebrities actually do anything to change people's minds," Clooney clarifies in a characteristic act of deflection. "All I do is make the heat much hotter, I make the light much brighter. And then they look around and get informed by finding a guy like John [ Prendergast]."  In this new evolution of activism, celebrities are just the gateway drug to deeper policy engagement.

Jimmy Carter on George Clooney: "It's extremely valuable to have you both here," the 86-year old Carter says to Clooney and John Prendergast in a closed-door meeting at the U.S. consulate in Juba. "You don't have an axe to grind and everybody knows it."

Family wisdom from Clooney's father: Nick Clooney is a broadcaster of the old school. His voice has the requisite warmth and crispness even as he relays his disappointment in the state of news today—‘after the [Berlin] Wall came down, we decided we could go out and play—we could look up skirts and through peep holes and call it news." Speaking from their family home in Kentucky, it's not hard to hear the father's influence on the son. "If there was a philosophy in our family, it was not unusual—you help those with less power than you and you challenge those with more power than you. If we can shine a light in a dark place, that would be a good thing to do. And if we fail, we fail, but in the meantime there's no excuse and no reason not to try."

George Clooney on the morning of the referendum: On the first morning of the seven-day referendum—Sunday, January 9—George Clooney got up before dawn. Shortly after 7 a.m., he arrived at the central polling station in Juba where the official kick-off ceremony for the referendum would take place. As he walked to the guarded gate, the lines were already winding back upon each other, hundreds of south Sudanese dressed in their colorful Sunday best, waiting patiently for the polls to open.

When the increasingly familiar face of Clooney passed by, they held plastic voter registration cards aloft like tiny liberty torches and smiled. They were ready to take the last few steps toward self-determination, the near-miracle of independence achieved through peaceful means rather than civil war.

As the official ceremonies began, African dignitaries and international statesmen lined up to take their picture with Clooney and talk with Prendergast as ‘We Are The World' blared from loud-speakers. When Salva Kiir, the presumptive first president of the Republic of South Sudan strode in wearing the trademark black cowboy hat he received from George W. Bush, he saw Clooney in the crowd, grabbed his hand and smiled broadly in a moment of shared triumph.

Clooney drove to different polling stations to witness the votes—foreign cameras snapped like cicadas when they saw him, but the locals were largely non-plussed, wondering what all the fuss was about. One election monitor from Liberia asked to have her photo-taken with him, while admitting she did not know who he was—‘I'll find out later' she said semi-apologetically. "I'm Brad Pitt, m'am," Clooney said without missing a beat.

A special mass to mark the start of the referendum was being held at Saint Theresa Kator Cathedral. By the time Clooney arrived the massive space was packed to capacity. No cameras were allowed, thwarting the paparazzi who tried to follow Clooney into the service. Inside, the atmosphere was like Easter—a time of rebirth, with abundant flowers and sunlight shining through the stained glass, illuminating the yellow walls. Above the altar a series of neon hearts flashed in succession, giving the impression of a beating heart. The choir sang traditional hymns punctuated with claps and the ululating tribal cries of celebration. Clooney sat on a pew in the back and listened to the service. The archbishop offered hope in the sermon and a reminder to make every vote count. "If you think one person is too small and insignificant to make a difference," he bellowed, "try spending the night with a hungry mosquito."

Their prayers for voter participation were answered. That first day, twenty-percent of the South's registered voters showed up at the polls. The final results found a 98.8 percent ‘yes' vote for independence.

One young man named Gaddaffi was beaming after voting that first day. I asked him how he felt: "I feel free at last—like Martin Luther King—thank God almighty, I am free at last!" He saw Clooney and started talking excitedly— "I call him a friend of southern Sudanese—he told the international community to wake up, that we didn't have to be Rwanda—and to me he is a hero for what he has done for us. " I heard these sentiments echoed over the next days. As one man simply said: "Thank you—For 20 years our country was at war and nobody cared until you came here."

The Interview with Valentino Achok Deng: This final excerpt is a from an interview with Valentino Achok Deng, the former ‘lost boy' best known to Americans as the subject of a best-selling "fictionalized memoir" by Dave Eggers, What Is the What?.  He is still a young man, now building schools—and a better future—in South Sudan. He spoke in soft, considered tones, with an almost prayerful lilt.

"Before George came, people were debating about whether or not [the referendum] should take place. Khartoum is aggressive and influential and it was insisting that the referendum will not take place. That was not just referendum for us. That was our destiny being put on hold."

"When George Clooney came to southern Sudan this time, for the referendum, it gave me a lot of confidence. It gave me a lot of hope. It strengthened my faith that what we had been struggling for all these several years—what my fathers and grandfathers had struggled for—our independence, was going to be a possible case scenario. Not by using AK-47s, but by the word of mouth."

"He has a huge following. The media follows him. Presidents hear from him. Everyone hears from him and what he says people hear it. So he has become our voice. Many people do not know that what we speak means a lot. And if we have a following, we must speak in a way that saves other peoples' life, in a way that helps other people economically and socially—and that's what he has done."

"The referendum would not have taken place without his involvement. Never. He saved millions of lives. I don't think he knows this."

"Personally, I'm going to name one of the big buildings at my school after him and I will not tell him. It will just be written there ‘cause he will feel embarrassed. That's not what he cares about."

John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and a CNN contributor. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.