Are stars helping or hurting Obama?

Femme power list stirs competition, controversy

George Clooney thinks it’s risky. Sean Combs (P. Diddy) thinks it’s urgently important.

Every celebrity feels differently on the question of political advocacy — whether a star should campaign for a candidate and whether that effort helps or hurts.

That argument has taken on a different perspective now that John McCain has made celebrity a key campaign issue. His new ads depict Obama as a rock star, a kindred spirit of folks like Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. He’s not a serious man-of-the-people like John McCain.

Political strategists are fascinated by this McCain play. Here’s one of history’s most non-charismatic candidates attempting to capitalize on his blandness by stressing the celebrity of his rival.

On the one hand, the tactic seems too transparent to succeed. But the strategists behind the McCain campaign were mentored by the team that sold George Bush as a man-of-the-people, even though he was a rich Yalie who’d never held a job.

The strategy nonetheless brings into question whether stars will be helping or hurting Obama by rallying behind him. Only last week a group of Obama backers in Hollywood were prepping another “star-studded gala” with an honorary board including Jessica Alba, Don Cheadle, Ashley Judd, Lucy Liu and others.

Indeed, it’s hardly a secret that the show business community favors Obama — political contributions from Hollywood total $4.4 million for Obama vs. $757,546 for McCain.

Obama’s tacticians reportedly are pondering a ploy similar to that used by Arnold Schwarzenegger a few years ago — namely, backing away from Hollywood backers and reinventing himself as a non-celebrity crusader for his political ideals.

Only in American politics would strategy this surreal even be contemplated. The guys who plot campaigns clearly have become more akin to Hollywood screenwriters than to traditional politicos

Obama, a black guy who fought his way through Chicago politics, is being re-invented by the Republicans as Bono. John McCain, who spent virtually his whole life working for the government in the military, is reshaped as a man who is intimate with the problems of the working man.

Since politics has become more Hollywood than Hollywood, should stars get mixed up in this mess? I can understand why a Clooney would say, “Careful, we may reinforce the stereotypes if we campaign for Obama.”

I would argue the opposite. The dialogue is so surreal that the presence of the true stars may remind voters that in politics as in the arts, reality and unreality are constantly colliding. Hence, star power still counts.

Besides, why let the Karl Roves of the world have all the fun?

* * *

Femme fanfare

This was women’s week. And it was intense.

First we had the Variety Women’s Impact Report bulging with profiles, photos (and ads) about the female power players. Then there was the Forbes’ list of billionaire women (seven under the age of 40). Again, the list was fat with ads and glitzy presentations.

Even Barack Obama, the guys’ candidate, saw fit last week to receive a deputation of women (including many old Hillary backers) to elicit their views and nurture.

Publications love to publish lists of power women, to be sure, not because publishers necessarily admire women but because women’s lists spout money — big money.

And here’s the other dirty little secret about them: There is more competition — ferocious competition — among women to gain placement on these power lists than for any other feature in Variety. I’m talking petulant phone calls, veiled pleas (and threats) from male bosses, bottles of expensive wine — and yes, yelling and screaming.

Sure, there’s also some nudging and elbowing for placement on male power lists, but it’s nothing compared to the women’s issues.

Why do these women’s lists generate so much “heat”? Here’s one theory:

The “glass ceiling” preventing women from attaining top jobs has all but vanished — especially in the media and entertainment business.

As a result, the competitiveness of women has now surpassed that of their masculine counterparts. The guys these days have suddenly awakened to their “sensitive,” huggy side. The women are keenly aware that they can compete with the guys, and win. And, by god, they’re going for it.

The upshot: It’s rough out there. And the prepping of the lists reflects it.

“You’ve got to include X on your power list,” the esteemed chief of one top talent agency told me. “She’s deserving. And if she’s not included, she’ll cut my balls off.”

How can you ignore that urgent a request?

“I’m the one who made this network tick,” urged one woman programmer. “What criteria are you using if I’m not on that list?”

Of course, lists are always dicey in the criteria department. Variety‘s list is intended to recognize women who have had a significant impact on the business during the past year. Forbes, to be sure, has it easier: They just add up the bucks. (J.K. Rowling had the biggest stash thanks to the “Potter” factory.)

Madelyn Hammond, Variety‘s chief marketing officer, who has presided over myriad women’s events, both agrees and disagrees with these theories.

“Women are attaining more power these days, but the achievements of women over 40 still tend to be taken for granted. They become invisible. That’s why a little recognition goes a long way.”

Maybe she’s right. We all suffer our moments of invisibility, male or female. Come to think of it, I haven’t been on a power list lately.

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