Barack 'N' Roll
When media reports surfaced earlier in the year that he had an ongoing e-mail "relationship" with Scarlett Johansson—not exactly known for her sage political advice ala David Axelrod—Obama went out of his way to downplay it.
Barack Obama shared the stage with Bruce Springsteen, Bono, Beyonce, Denzel Washington, Stevie Wonder, Tom Hanks, and even Tiger Woods at the We Are One concert at the Lincoln Memorial yesterday, but don’t expect to see much more of the president-elect among the Hollywood stars and musicians who donated some $7.7 million to make sure he would be inaugurated. Robin Bronk, executive director of the Creative Coalition, host of just one of star-studded balls this week, says she has no idea whether Obama will even drop in to her event. “We’ve had some inquiries from the Secret Service and other security,” she says, “but that’s all.”
“There was a lot of concern in his camp that he was going to look like he was cozying up to Hollywood in the middle of a crisis.”
“I’d be surprised if he does [show],” says another entertainment-industry executive.
Bill Clinton inhaled celebrity, inviting stars into the White House as often as possible for parties and sleepovers. And John F. Kennedy had various enduring relations (or fleeting, as the case may have been) with marquee names.
Not Obama. “He did spend a lot of time in Southern California raising money for his campaign,” notes the industry exec. “But he doesn’t have a record of historical relations with the entertainment community.”
That’s not likely to change. If anything, Obama’s relationship with celebrities and the entertainment industry will become more of what it has always been—vehemently practical. “This guy isn’t star-struck in the least,” says veteran Hollywood publicist Michael Levine. “He knows he’s the biggest star of all.”
Not for nothing have critics and admirers alike described Obama as among the shrewdest politicians in a long time. Consider how he deftly navigated a potential minefield in his ties to Hollywood last fall, when he was due to arrive at a long-planned fundraiser courtesy of Barbra Streisand just as the carnage in the financial markets was reaching waist-deep. John McCain’s campaign had already tagged Obama as the “celebrity”—i.e., airhead—candidate. The tag may not have done much damage, but Obama was acutely sensitive to the charge. When media reports surfaced earlier in the year that he had an ongoing e-mail “relationship” with Scarlett Johansson—not exactly known for her sage political advice a la David Axelrod—Obama went out of his way to downplay it.
And then came the Streisand event. With unemployment rolls starting to swell and retirement savings disappearing faster than you can say “Madoff,” the most visible Hollywood liberal was waiting to shower money on him at a glitzy soiree in Beverly Hills.
“There was a lot of concern in his camp that he was going to look like he was cozying up to Hollywood in the middle of a crisis,” says Ted Johnson, who chronicled the entertainment industry’s involvement with the presidential campaign on his blog, WilshireAndWashington.com. “There was even talk of him canceling. But he came here and he made sure that nothing he said could possibly be newsworthy. The pool coverage didn’t report much.”
Obama also sharply limited photo-op time with Streisand. “He gave her a very short hug,” Johnson remembers. “He had to acknowledge her but then moved away pretty quickly.”
While Obama was the top-dollar candidate among Hollywood donors—pulling in more than double the amount of cash that primary runner-up Hillary Rodham Clinton netted—the millions he received from A-listers accounted for only 1 percent of the total amount of money he raised throughout the campaign. “His fund-raising base was so much more decentralized than other candidates’,” the industry exec says. “He raised huge sums of money from lots of different areas, so the entertainment industry was not a large single donor.”
Some big players like David Geffen went for Obama early on, but most members of Hollywood royalty initially backed Hillary, thinking, like most of the Democratic party, she would be the nominee. Undeterred, Obama adjusted his Hollywood strategy accordingly, going after numerous younger insiders who might not be on any list but who still had money to give and a hand to lend. Jonathan Glickman, a producer, was one of those younger insiders. “He was very active in fund-raising for Obama,” says his father, Dan Glickman, head of the Motion Picture Association of America and a former member of Bill Clinton’s Cabinet. “[Jonathan] was a serious supporter of Obama, as were a lot of his peers and contemporaries, whereas I and my contemporaries were more involved with Hillary until he won the nomination.”
Put another way, Obama shrewdly built his support lines into Hollywood the same way he built them into every other community during his campaign—and, for that matter, his entire political career: from the bottom up, and with an eye for innovation.
Maybe most important is the fact that all of Obama’s alliances—particularly the one with the entertainment industry—seem to be at a safe remove, maximizing benefits while limiting liabilities. Obama has courted Hollywood, but has shown no interest in hanging out with or in it, and most celebrities understand and accept that. “There are some out here who’ve been saying, ‘If you’re thinking of spending any time out here, don’t,’” says Johnson. “They know the chance of a backlash exists.”
With the economy sinking deeper into recession, no president would be advised to pal around with celebrities, either poolside at their mansions or in one of the White House ballrooms. Moreover, publicist Levine warns of a spreading overlay of what he calls “luxury shame, this emerging ethos in our culture in which it’s unwise to flaunt success.” Or even associate with it.
But that hardly means ignore it. Viewed strictly through the kind of pragmatic lens that Obama prefers, celebrities will for the foreseeable future continue to offer access to two increasingly valuable and vital political tools: money and publicity. Indeed, Hollywood is among the top three sources the Obama camp has tapped for the $24 million it has raised so far to cover inauguration expenses. (Silicon Valley and what’s left of Wall Street are the other two.)
“Obama will tap into entertainers to help when it suits his purposes, like for doing public-service announcements or drawing attention to any initiatives he might have on the arts,” Johnson says. Or, as the MPAA’s Glickman puts it, “Star power really transcends money, so any entertainers who want to engage with the administration or contribute to solving problems, they will certainly be welcomed.”
All others, including your agents, on the other side of the rope, please.
From 2005 to the end of 2008, William Triplett was head of the Washington, D.C. bureau of Variety.