Major Hollywood, reporting for duty

IT’S NOT EXACTLY A SECRET that Hollywood loved Bubba. Major players still reminisce fondly about palmy days in the Lincoln bedroom. Pundits have rightly asked, will the showbiz community ever accommodate the Bushies?

Last week, Bush emissaries chose an appropriate opportunity to try making inroads. Citing the urgent demands posed by the war on terrorism, they invited studio and network heads to a closed-door meeting. Their avowed aim: to marshal the resources of showbiz to the war effort. The subtext was also clear: to open a dialogue between the Bush White House and Hollywood.

Hollywood’s reaction was positive, though some felt the White House should have come prepared to say, “This is specifically what we need from you.” A few were still bristling from Ari Fleischer’s clumsy admonition to Bill Maher and to news organizations that “people have to watch what they say and watch what they do.”

By and large, however, the Bushies got good grades for their tactful presentation and for steering clear of hot-button issues that could have derailed the dialogue.

THE MOOD OF THE MEETING was aggressively nonpartisan, consistent with the upfront promises of Bruce Ramer and Lionel Chetwynd, the two respected Hollywood players and committed Republicans who orchestrated the encounter.

Even as follow-up calls poured in from showbiz professionals eager to help the cause, however, the question remained: What initiatives can be undertaken? Specifically, how can we help?

Though no one was immediately stepping forward to respond, two clear areas presented themselves, one at home and the other abroad.

As the White House emissaries were working the Hollywood community, their president was in Northern California delivering a tough message. “Mark my words,” he said, “people are going to get tired of this war on terrorism.” Any administration embarking on a long, arduous war needs the media and the entertainment community to be solidly in support. Vietnam fortified that message.

Overseas, the U.S. has awakened to the fact that hate is a mandated part of the curriculum, especially in Muslim nations. Saudi textbooks warn Muslim kids to avoid Christian and Jewish friends and “to consider the infidels their enemy,” as the New York Times reminded us last week.

The task of countering ennui at home and ideological poison abroad is a daunting one. The most telling weapon is the “p” word that’s not fashionable anymore — propaganda. The administration knows it must tap into the technology and knowledge base of the media and entertainment communities, and its ad men, to achieve its objectives, and it must be uninhibited about doing so.

To be sure, things were a lot simpler after Pearl Harbor. Classic documentaries like “Why We Fight” were ordered up from top filmmakers like Frank Capra. The studios rolled out movies like “Wake Island” and “Torpedo Boat” to spur patriotic fervor. Far from being worried about the impact of propaganda films, the best and the brightest eagerly signed up to help the cause. The Uncle Sam poster shouted, “We want you!”

WHILE HELPING THE WAR EFFORT, of course, Hollywood also managed to turn a buck. Despite production cutbacks (even celluloid was in short supply), the studios found a way of grinding out an array of escapist fare — Paramount alone made as many as 12 giddy musicals in 1942. Yet, arguably, even these represented a contribution by keeping the public distracted from wartime sacrifices.

In today’s complex environment, Hollywood’s major players have their understandable concerns about appearing to service a propaganda pipeline. The Bush administration, in seeking to improve its links to the entertainment community, understands these inhibitions.

Yet if the war on terrorism is to be sustained over a substantial period of time, showbiz must be called upon to help the cause, even though Bubba’s no longer in the White House. And last week posed a promising, if exceedingly cautious, first step.

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