Thursday, September 6, 2012

Warren Beatty, Harry Belafonte, and the Democrats

The fact that the biggest story coming out of last week’s Republican National Convention involved Clint Eastwood and an empty chair reinforces the fact that our American political gatherings have always depended for some of their glamour on the kindness of stars. In covering this week’s Democratic shindig, commentators have been checking off which Hollywood celebrities will be present and accounted for. (Scarlett Johansson? Yup. George Clooney? Apparently not. Oprah? Missing in action.)

Steven J. Ross’s important 2011 book, Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics, makes the point that show biz figures who skew conservative are more likely than their liberal colleagues to become political insiders. The obvious examples are George Murphy, who served a term as a Republican senator from California, and Ronald Reagan, who (upon putting his Hollywood career to rest) became California’s governor and then an iconic Republican president of the United States. (A more problematic case is that of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who took advantage of the recall of California’s Democratic governor Gray Davis to vault into the governor’s office as a Republican of sorts, but ended up aggravating both parties before returning to his movie career.)

Among Hollywood’s liberal contingent, there are many shades of ardent political thought, but seemingly less inclination to be counted among the party faithful. (This puts me in mind of Will Rogers’ famous quip: “I belong to no organized party, I'm a Democrat.”) Though a number of Democratic celebs -– among them Robert Vaughn and George Clooney -- have floated the idea of running for office, they seem to prefer keeping their day jobs. Such was certainly the case with Warren Beatty, who (following his controversial release of the political film Bulworth) seriously toyed with a White House bid. Ross clarifies that in the eyes of political liberals and radicals who attended the Americans for Democratic Action dinner in September 1999, Beatty was seen as “the left’s answer to Ronald Reagan: a charismatic figure who knew how to present complex issues in an engaging and persuasive manner.” He also had campaign experience, having backed Robert Kennedy’s doomed presidential run in 1968, served as George McGovern’s chief fundraiser and media advisor in 1972, then developed a close relationship with Gary Hart, whose own White House campaign derailed so spectacularly in 1988. Beatty, however, is a man who values his own privacy, as well as his Hollywood clout. Though encouraged to run for the presidency himself, he ultimately declined.

Harry Belafonte, far more than Warren Beatty or virtually any Hollywood Democrat, was willing to subordinate his show biz career to a social and political cause. In the heady Sixties, he put everything he had into the advancement of the civil rights movement. His commitment to equality for his fellow black Americans and his personal devotion to Martin Luther King led him to embrace the presidency of John F. Kennedy, and later to join forces with attorney general Robert Kennedy. He was personally responsible for rounding up the Hollywood contingent at King’s 1963 March on Washington, and strategically brought Charlton Heston into the fold as a co-organizer because he recognized Heston’s appeal to Middle America. But the assassination of both King and Robert Kennedy in 1968 largely soured him on politics. Today he’s still an outspoken progressive, castigating others (including some black superstars) for their lack of “social responsibility,” but I get the impression he’s less interested in the Democratic Party than in the 99%. Meanwhile, the Democrats are making do with Kal Penn, who’s smart and funny, though not nearly so good at singing “Day-O.”


  1. Another corker post! I am not a hugely political person - but I do find the points where politics and entertainment overlap to be very interesting.

    And by the way - have you actually heard Kal Penn singing Day-O? ;)

  2. Good point, Mr. Craig -- Belafonte in his heyday would be hard to beat, but maybe there's the heart of a Calypso singer beating in Kal Penn's breast.