Celebrities who mug and wave. Celebrities who hug and boogie.
Celebrities who stand behind your cause, and behind your left (or
right) shoulder on the podium.
From Bo Derek, Bruce Willis, and Chaka Khan fronting the
Republicans in Philadelphia to Melissa Etheridge, Dylan McDermott,
and Luther Vandross here at the Democratic confab, stars have become
to politics what product placements are to major movies: marketing
ploys to win viewers, add cachet, and humanize abstract themes.
While the ploy has been a standard feature of American politics
for decades, it is reaching new dimensions with the 2000 election,
as celebrity and politics become ever more intertwined. Not only are
more stars available for photo ops at the Staples Center here, but
dozens of top Hollywood figures are hosting off-site fundraising
dinners, music parties, and teas.
"I got invited to a party with several leading politicos
from Congress and the White House, and I asked the host, 'Oh yeah,
who's gonna be there?' " recalls Joe Cerrell, a veteran Democratic
strategist based in Hollywood. "The guy said, 'Fabio.' I said, 'No,
no, no. Who are the politicians?' "
Such anecdotes are multiplying as both major political parties
intensify their efforts to lure top celebrities. A major activity -
some say the major activity - in Los Angeles this week is the scores
of fundraisers at homes of stars ranging from Barbra Streisand to
Melanie Griffith. Businessmen, lobbyists, stars, and others are
guaranteed access to politicians from Congress to the White House in
exchange for donations of $50,000 and up.
Behind closed doors
Such events feed the gossip machine (which stars favor which
party?), but they also focus the spotlight on important issues of
fairness, access to power, and money trails.
"We think these [parties] raise issues of fairness because a
whole cross-section of middle Americans has no access to these
soirees," says Sheila Krumholz of the Washington-based Center for
Responsive Politics. Such events, she adds, foster privacy and
exclusivity. "Our principal wish is transparency - who is there,
what are they getting. When voters know these things, they can make
their decisions accordingly at the ballot box."
Ever since President Ronald Reagan left office, Republicans have
been bested by Democrats in the "duelling celebrity" contest.
Democrats have consistently raised more money in Hollywood and
enlisted a higher magnitude of star power. In 1999, of $19 million
given to political parties by entertainment and the arts, two-
thirds went to Democrats.
But some say the GOP is now working harder than before to close
that gap - and it appears to be working. Of money given to the two
presidential candidates, Al Gore's margin is far less than that for
the overall Democrat-Republican margin: $906,000 for Gore in 1999-
2000, compared with $712,000 for George W. Bush.
The growing tug-of-war between the two major parties over who
gets whom and how the stars are deployed explains much about the
currents of influence in the changing scene of American politics,
"People watching these conventions tend to forget that party
allegiance in democratic electoral politics is increasingly replaced
by media," says Robert Dawidoff, a historian at Claremont Graduate
University in southern California. …