BILL CLINTON SCREENED a new film called “Dave” last week at his Camp David retreat, a film that couldn’t come along at a more propitious time. For while “Dave” is both funny and utterly endearing, it presents a rather dark view of the presidency.
The chief executive in this movie is a mean-spirited womanizer who suffers a massive stroke during a sexual encounter with a bimbo. When a “double” (played by Kevin Kline) is brought in by the White House staff to run the country, this naive doofus performs the duties of head of state with greater skill and compassion than the real president.
“Dave’s” arrival is well-timed because Hollywood at this moment is taking a hard look at the Clinton presidency, trying to figure out whether its massive commitment has paid off.
Never before have so many stars and moguls worked so hard to elect a president, nor taken more pride in participating in fund-raisers and photo ops.
The commingling of Hollywood and the Washington power structures was vividly in evidence last week at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, where the media elite was unexpectedly joined by the likes of Barbra Streisand, Michael Douglas, Sarah Jessica Parker, Richard Dreyfuss, Pat and Mike Medavoy, Barry Diller and Ron Howard.
I’d attended the dinner to visit with some old friends in the Washington press corps; instead I felt I was back at Morton’s.
Talking to the celebs who worked hard for Clinton, you’ll hear words of praise for the president’s stand on abortion, for the “macha” performance of Hillary and for the energy and optimism of the Clinton White House. But you’ll also pick up on the first hints of apprehension.
“Why does he keep backing away from things?” asked one star. “Spend any time with Bill Clinton and you’re reminded of a central reality,” confided one industry exec. “Most of his Hollywood backers are liberals, but Bill Clinton simply is not. We kept pretending to overlook all this during the campaign, but we can’t pretend any longer.”
Though it’s politically incorrect to mention Jimmy Carter in polite company, it was precisely at this moment in the Carter administration when the door slammed on his showbiz supporters.
The seed money for Carter’s primary campaign was substantially raised by Hollywood and the love affair continued throughout the campaign. By the time Carter’s first Hundred Days had played out, however, Hamilton Jordan and other Carter rednecks had succeeded in isolating the early backers.
IT WAS MONEY FROM POLITICAL LIBERALS that ‘discovered’ Jimmy Carter and fostered his campaign, but we ignored the fact that Jimmy’s people were all traditional Southern conservatives,” recalls Max Palevsky, who was a Hollywood producer at the time and a major political power player. “Carter’s people loved the money and the glitz, but after the election, suddenly none of us could get an appointment or even get our calls answered.”
Clinton, too, Palevsky reminds us, is no liberal Democrat, despite the high expectations of Hollywood liberals. “Look at the CIA budget spiraling upward; that’s not the sign of a liberal administration,” he observes.
The Clinton White House, to be sure, unlike Carter’s, has gone out of its way to sustain its Hollywood ties. Streisand, the Medavoys and others have been invited to be overnight guests at the White House. Other celebs have even been invited to folksy family meals in the private quarters complete with Chelsea and Socks. Indeed there’s even incipient gossip reminiscent of the Kennedy era — who’s doing what to whom in what presidential preserve.
Though Hollywood celebs may still find a welcome mat, there’s nonetheless a growing understanding of the lessons of the first Hundred Days. To achieve a successful presidency, the task confronting Bill Clinton is to build a new majority coalition that will foster an interventionist government. Clinton’s political base must rest on traditional Democratic constituencies as well as Ross Perot backers who are suspicious of government. He needs the help of Republican moderates and Senate centrists alike.
As Thomas Edsall pointed out in the Washington Post, “Clinton has faltered when he has acceded to the cultural liberal pressures within his own party.” Issues like gays in the military may play well in Hollywood, but they have lost him points in the national polls. Recent polls have found that the advantage Clinton built up during the campaign has already been dissipated.
CLINTON’S HANDLERS MAY ENJOY mingling with the superstars; they also know that glitz can help win elections but can’t build coalitions. It may be fun to discuss gay rights with a Streisand, but in the end you’re left with some meat-and-potatoes yahoo who wants to know how he can save the military base in his district.
One can’t but wonder whether Bill Clinton was pondering these ironies even as he was viewing “Dave” in the secluded comfort of his screening room. On one level, this wonderful movie must have seemed like a Valentine dispatched by his Hollywood friends. All we want from a president, the film says, is someone who really cares; even a simpleminded person who wants to improve the lot of his people.
But then the film is saying something else as well: We know the White House is really run by nasties. We know the system sucks.
Thanks to a brilliant plot device, the good guy wins in “Dave.” Hollywood clearly wants the good guy to win in real life as well. And Bill Clinton must be sitting there in the dark, wondering, “Is it really possible to win in this place?”