Magazine | June 23, 2014, Issue

The Real Tinsel

Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration between LA and DC Revolutionized American Politics, by Timothy Stanley (Thomas Dunne, 320 pp., $26.99)

The story can now be told. Sort of.

Almost 1 million years ago, when then-president George H. W. Bush was running for a second term, his running mate, Dan Quayle, gave a speech in which he drew the connection between the breakdown of the American family — then, as now, a major reason so many families remain poor — and the prevailing attitudes in popular Hollywood entertainment.

After connecting the statistical dots between fatherless households, poverty, and crime, the vice president summed it up this way:

Ultimately however, marriage is a moral issue that requires cultural consensus, and the use of social sanctions. Bearing babies irresponsibly is, simply, wrong. Failing to support children one has fathered is wrong. We must be unequivocal about this.

It doesn’t help matters when prime-time TV has Murphy Brown — a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid, professional woman — mocking the importance of fathers, by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another “lifestyle choice.”

I know it is not fashionable to talk about moral values, but we need to do it. Even though our cultural leaders in Hollywood, network TV, the national newspapers routinely jeer at them, I think that most of us in this room know that some things are good, and other things are wrong. Now it’s time to make the discussion public.

Note to young people: Murphy Brown was a sitcom.

If you’re in your forties or older, you’ll remember the result of those paragraphs: pandemonium. The earth shook. Hollywood and the liberal media went bananas. Dan Quayle — despite being factually correct in his analysis and moderate in his language — was portrayed as a dangerously unhinged lunatic. Later, of course, after the freakouts had ended and the liberals had revived themselves from their fainting couches — a moment roughly coincident with the election of the Democratic challenger, Bill Clinton — they all decided that, in the words of The Atlantic, “Dan Quayle Was Right.”

But that’s not the cool part. The cool part is that I was working in television at the time and somehow came across a copy of the top-secret script of the Murphy Brown season premiere in which the main character “responds” to the vice president. It was weird, obviously: The vice president was a real-life person and “Murphy Brown” was a fictional character, but back then — before Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and, especially, Fox News — a big network-television show was a serious piece of political artillery.

I had in my hands a pretty powerful object, something that I knew my political allies would want to see. But I was also — and defiantly remain — an absolute coward who didn’t want his fingerprints on any professionally compromising transaction. So what I did was this: I said in a loud voice to no one in particular that it would be good if this script somehow found its way to my friends in the Bush campaign, friends whose specific addresses were clearly hand-printed in my address book (remember: 1992). Oh, and FedEx one to Rush Limbaugh while you’re at it.

That last part, by the way, is the cool part.

You will not find that story in Timothy Stanley’s smart and far-ranging history of Hollywood and politics, Citizen Hollywood, but you will find an interesting and (to me, at least) much more persuasive argument about the effect Hollywood storylines have on the culture at large. The Murphy Brown example, Stanley avers, was a foolish one for a Republican pro-life candidate to bring up:

If Quayle had watched the show closely enough he’d have noted that Murphy makes what some would see as the very conservative decision to keep her baby rather than abort it. Some Republicans thought the show’s message admirable. “Murphy Brown was right,” the right-wing pundit Pat Buchanan told me. “She kept her child. What did Dan want her to do with it?”

Hollywood’s liberal bent has been exhaustively documented, but Stanley’s book is a wider and more sweeping survey of the ways Hollywood and Washington, D.C., have interacted since the days of Coolidge, when Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover jotted a note to Louis B. Mayer promising that he’d be “glad to see you anytime on 24 hours’ notice,” which was quite a promise in those days. Hoover helped MGM build a powerful — and monopolistic — radio empire: an early sign, as Stanley notes, that the old political bosses were losing power to the new masters of the American audience.

There’s some great dish in this book, too. Louis B. Mayer’s first night as a guest in the White House — born in Russia! a penniless kid! — kicks off the book in a charming way, but Stanley quickly gets into the grimier stuff. He describes the complicated rings of power at a Hollywood political-fundraising dinner — the higher the ticket price, the closer to the center — and how the little fish along the edge can nibble their way closer to the big producers at the high-rollers’ table. He tells us about a friend of his who consistently — and successfully — gatecrashes these kinds of events. There’s great background stuff about the famous Democratic presidential-primary campaign of 1968, in which Hollywood progressives like Paul Newman threw their support behind Eugene McCarthy, and, in their opinion, helped unseat Lyndon Johnson. And it wouldn’t be a book about Hollywood if it didn’t include some casting-couch gossip, some Communists, and some complicated interactions with Nazis.

Stanley’s book is witty and entertaining, and does a thorough job of illustrating the ways in which Hollywood works Washington, the ways Washington works Hollywood, and the ways both are subject to the surprisingly unpredictable whims of the American public.

Hollywood is basically like the drunk at the party: It’s loud and sloppy, but it’s also close to inconsequential. (As long as it doesn’t break anything.) One of the strengths of Stanley’s book is that he takes a critical and unconvinced look at the current vogue among conservatives to blame the “liberal media” or “Hollywood values” for the things that plague us. “In most cases,” Stanley writes, “TV and movies haven’t driven social changes but simply reflected them.”

That has certainly been my experience working in Hollywood for 25 years. The place is filled with progressive liberals — movie-studio parking lots are a sea of Priuses and Obama stickers — but the real role of the entertainment industry is to deliver cash to the Democratic party. It’s a powerful function, of course, but that’s about where the influence ends.

That’s what I learned, anyway, in my brief experience as a dark operative for the Republican party. You can send the top-secret script to the campaign. You can send it to Rush Limbaugh. What you cannot do is reelect a president.

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