McCain's celebrity supporters ramp up visibility

While Hollywood’s celebs continue to coalesce around their preferred presidential candidate and hash out the best approach to campaigning, Jon Voight grabbed the spotlight last week with an op-ed piece for the Washington Times that praised John McCain as an “American legend” but cast a dire warning about Barack Obama. 

“The Democratic party, in its quest for power, has managed a propaganda campaign with subliminal messages, creating a God-like figure in a man who falls short in every way,” he wrote. 

For an industry dominated by Democrats and an expected heavy contingent for Obama, it was a harsh shot across the bow.

It also was an indication that Republicans, long perceived as an endangered species in the industry, aren’t going to be silent as the general election heats up.

McCain’s celebrity supporters are ramping up their visibility while Obama’s would probably be well-advised to tone it down as the GOP tries to make a big case out of his celebrity status (see Peter Bart’s column ADD LINK).

Other industry supporters of McCain may not be as strident as Voight in opposing Obama, but they do have a greater sense of comfort in publicly backing the GOP standard bearer than they did George W. Bush.

“John McCain is not a doctrinaire right-wing hardline conservative. He is center right, with a lot of moderate positions, and he is attractive to a lot of people in Hollywood,” says director-screenwriter Lionel Chetwynd, who has long been involved in organizing industry support for GOP candidates. “The great division in Hollywood is not right and left, but in point of view. … Some people are more internationalist in their views and some have a more traditional view of America’s uniqueness.”

McCain’s industry support ranges from such actors as Kelsey Grammer, Tom Selleck, Gary Sinise and Robert Duvall, to execs like MGM’s Harry Sloan and producer Jerry Bruckheimer. Clint Eastwood has attended a fund-raiser. 

There has been some talk of a press conference to announce a list of “many great, intelligent, talented Academy Award winning actors” who are backing McCain, Voight says.

“There is a very large world out there, but Hollywood seems to always get the spotlight,” Voight told Variety in a statement. “I’ve been told by many people that they think I’m the lone wolf of Hollywood who is supporting Sen. McCain for our next president. But that is not true.”

The Washington Times reported in July about “Hollywood’s conservative underground,” a newly formed group of conservatives and centrists called “Friends of Abe” that has been meeting in restaurants and homes.

A contingent of boldfaced names also is expected to go to the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., and although it may not match that of the Democrats’ gathering, it may at least stand in contrast to the turnout in 2004.

Save for a brief period of unity after 9/11, the past eight years have seen an endless stream of Hollywood criticism of Bush, whether via stars speaking out or through documentaries and features, the most recent being Oliver Stone’s upcoming “W.”

With the anti-administration sentiment came a sense that favorable views toward Bush were best kept to oneself, particularly as the war in Iraq turned into a quagmire.

“There were some who were less likely to step up and say they were Republicans,” says Sam Haskell, head of his own media company and the former head of television for the William Morris Agency.

Haskell, who has contributed to McCain’s campaign and is helping organize the first presidential debate on Sept. 26 at the U. of Mississippi in Oxford, sees the election much differently than how many Democrats would like to characterize it: a referendum on George W. Bush.

“I, like many Americans, am disappointed in several issues facing our country,” Haskell says. “I want change too, but I don’t think the desire to support change can be isolated to one party.”

It’s worth noting, however, that just how real or perceived the risk was to express pro-Bush sentiments is a subject open to endless debate. While John Kerry dominated support in the industry in 2004, execs like Michael De Luca spoke out in favor Bush. Chetwynd worked with his campaign. Screenwriter David Zucker created an anti-Kerry ad for Club for Growth, a spot released just days before the election.

And it’s worth remembering that at least up until his latest presidential run, McCain had strong appeal even among some industry liberals, and was the subject of a 2005 A&E TV biopic, “Faith of My Fathers,” based on his book about his years as a Vietnam POW. He’s a longtime friend of Warren Beatty, a stalwart of Democratic party politics.

McCain’s past celebrity status, in fact, is all the more ironic given the central attack of his campaign late last week: that Obama’s own celebrity appears to have gone to his head.

A spot that debuted last week tried to link his fame to that of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears (the latter of whom has actually expressed a preference for GOP candidates). And an Internet video ad from the Republican National Committee linked Obama’s visit to Germany to that of David Hasselhoff, which left the “Baywatch” star’s reps scratching their heads.

Moreover, McCain’s chief adviser Steve Schmidt was one of the instrumental figures in the re-election of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. It goes without saying that the Governator himself embraced celebrity — and in his Hollywood years, he certainly felt little need to take his views into the underground.

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