On Thursday, former Sex and the City star Sarah Jessica Parker is hosting a campaign fundraiser at her Manhattan home for President Obama. Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour will co-host. Both Barack and Michelle will be in attendance, along with a variety of other A-listy big-money types who can afford the $40,000-per-plate price tag.
It’s hard to say who is more excited about the evening: Team Obama, which blasted multiple emails hawking the event and ran TV ads featuring Parker and Wintour urging supporters to donate as little as $3 for a chance to win seats at this glam affair; or conservatives, who pounced on the dinner/raffle as garish, Manolo Blahnik-clad proof that Obama is an out of touch, celebrity-schmoozing elitist. Blogger Michelle Malkin mocked Dems’ effort to “rally the peasantry,” Rush Limbaugh dubbed the president “Barack Kardashian,” and the Republican National Committee lampooned the entire Wintour spot, weaving grim jobless stats into the original video of the super-posh fashion doyenne in order to suggest Obama’s priorities are warped. The political media soon chimed in, musing about the cluelessness of the Obama campaign.
Such is the mixed blessing of celebrity endorsements. Even as they help candidates generate buzz and rake in cash, they hand the opposition a big fat club with which to bash both endorser and endorsee.
Thanks to their rep as the party of Hollywood, Dems face greater hazards in this area. Every time a George Clooney or Scarlett Johansson or Will.i.am lends a hand, Republicans sneer loudly at Obama’s—or Bill Clinton’s or John Kerry’s—kinship with dilettante lefty celebs. (One Tea Party group in San Diego, calling for a boycott of Hollywood Obama supporters, warns on its website that “Loony Anti-American Occult Religious Belief Is Rampant in Hollywood.”) The more perfectly the star in question feeds the pre-existing stereotype of foie gras-nibbling limousine liberalism, the better. (Country crooner Toby Keith = safe; Gwyneth Paltrow = borderline; liberal scrapper Alec Baldwin = duck and cover!)
The GOP, however, is just as eager to exploit its more limited stable of brand names. The likes of Chuck Norris, Kelsey Grammer, and Kid Rock get wheeled out to help with the base-rallying and buck-raking, while 1980s sex kitten Bo Derek has been a fixture on the Republican circuit for more than two decades. As with pro-Dem celebs, such high-profile support carries risks. Rocker Ted Nugent’s anti-Obama rants have given the GOP some P.R. migraines this cycle. (One tirade even earned Nugent a visit from the Secret Service.) And while Obama’s Parker/Wintour event has prompted snickering and eye-rolling, Team Romney’s similar raffle to dine with Donald Trump has provoked shrieks of disbelief. Forget what the chattering class thinks of The Donald: consistently, polls show that Romney’s ties to Trump make everyday voters less likely to vote for him.
Controversial stars are hardly new to the political scene. Anita Bryant’s anti-gay-rights crusade of the late 1970s sparked a nationwide backlash—remember the great orange juice boycott?—and, on a more personal level, destroyed her career.
Of course, the champion of celebrity toxicity may have been Jane Fonda, whose crusading against the Vietnam War in the early ’70s, complete with denunciations of U.S. officials and photos of her seated in a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun, turned her into the poster child for a hyper-left, anti-war fervor that Republicans could easily spin as anti-American. “Hanoi Jane” became such a flashpoint for conservatives that, more than three decades later, some on the right sought to damage Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, a Vietnam veteran turned anti-war activist, by circulating a photo that showed him and Fonda seated (separately) in the crowd at a 1970 protest.
That said, Fonda and Bryant were unabashed political bomb-throwers. These days, a celeb doesn’t need to do much more than voice support for a candidate to draw fire. Until her plug for Obama, Sarah Jessica Parker was better known for her footwear than for her politics. Now she is being personally and professionally shredded by pundits from coast to coast.
Forget what they say about the high price of fame: the price of political involvement may be even more brutal.