Forty years ago, when President Lyndon Johnson suffered crushing results in the New Hampshire primary and decided to exit the race, some of his advisers pointed to an unlikely reason for challenger Eugene McCarthy’s success: Paul Newman.
It wasn’t too far off the mark, as Newman proved to be a tireless campaigner for McCarthy, then a relatively unknown U.S. senator from Minnesota, and in the process reflected a new level of celebrity activism.
As pop and politics mix to new and almost surreal levels in 2008, the roots of their integration are in 1968. In that eventful year, Hollywood took a much more active role in what would prove to be a tumultuous presidential election. Motivated by the country’s involvement in Vietnam and the growing civil rights protests at home, no longer muted by 1950s fears of blacklist and bolstered by the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan to the California governorship, more of Hollywood began to speak out and stump for candidates, and in a louder voice.
John Frankenheimer directed and produced ads for Robert Kennedy; Newman and Arthur Miller went to the Democratic convention as McCarthy delegates; Jackie Gleason introduced Richard Nixon before a live TV telethon.
Primetime programs became so political that CBS sent out an edict early in the year demanding that no variety shows name any candidate as a comedy punchline. That didn’t stop the Stephen Colbert-esque Pat Paulsen from running his first satirical campaign for president on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.”
As Ron Brownstein writes of the year in “The Power and the Glitter,” “As politics came to be seen as more packaged, slicker, more like acting, many stars felt less anxiety about using celebrity as a political tool.”
Up until then, stars were like window dressing: a wave, a few words, maybe a song. That was it.
“In the 1950s, a lot of them would have nothing to do with politics,” says veteran political consultant Joe Cerrell. “They were afraid they would be considered communists if they got too involved.”
By 1968, as television coverage became a decisive factor in presidential campaigns, the candidates caught on to the value of Hollywood stardust. As “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” was vaulting to the country’s top show on TV, Nixon broke from his general election campaign to appear on the show and recite the show’s signature catchphrase, “Sock it to me.” The bit added a much-needed dose of hipness to his campaign, which was sold as the “New Nixon” but rooted in the Silent Majority.
Old Hollywood — Ray Bolger, Rudy Vallee, John Wayne — embraced the Republican candidate. But there was little doubt that the younger generations of industry leaned liberal. They flooded Democratic campaigns with offers to help, in any way possible.
“They all had celebrities,” says Cerrell, who worked for Hubert Humphrey that year. “I would always get a kick out of the people we had entertaining vs. the ones (Republicans) had.”
Robert Vaughn, star of primetime series “Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” was one of the first if not the first major actor to publicly oppose the Vietnam War. He did so in a January, 1966, speech in Indianapolis, at a dinner event intended to support Johnson’s re-election.
Vaughn still has a photo of the audience’s reaction. “Everyone at the front table had hands over their eyes,” he wryly notes.
For the actor, it was the start of years of fulltime engagement opposing the war and, in 1968, supporting antiwar candidate McCarthy. (He intended to switch to Kennedy, a close friend, if he won the California primary). Vaughn led a group called Dissenting Democrats, and found himself a guest on William F. Buckley’s “The Firing Line” and engaging in impromptu debate with Humphrey on a live Minneapolis talkshow. Vaughn got some angry mail, to which he would simply send his Indianapolis speech, but he didn’t fear wrecking his career.
“I didn’t have any responsibilities,” Vaughn says. “I was a bachelor and there was nothing stopping me from doing this. The issue was so overwhelming in my mind’s eye.”
Then, as now, Hollywood’s political loyalties were divided. Newman, Joanne Woodward and Tony Randall went with McCarthy. Some of the Minnesota senator’s early supporters, like Lauren Bacall, broke for Robert Kennedy when he got in the race, as did an eclectic mix that included Kirk Douglas, Sammy Davis Jr., Candice Bergen, Rosemary Clooney, Andy Williams and the Jefferson Airplane. After Kennedy jumped into the race, his campaign was deluged with offers of help — some 100 actors, directors and producers called offering their support, according to the New York Times. One entertainer noticeably absent from the list: Frank Sinatra, who had backed JFK, went with Humphrey, and even headlined an Oakland gala for a delegate slate opposing RFK.
“This year, the enthusiastic support given by showbiz to the primaries topped any previous record,” Army Archerd noted June 6.
That item ran the day after Kennedy was shot at Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel, where a handful of his supporters stared in shock. Milton Berle, who fed Kennedy one-liners, waited with his wife, Ruth, in Kennedy’s suite upstairs. The industry was so heavily involved in his campaign that the shooting shut down much of the business.
Despite the passion that many in the industry felt for the antiwar cause and civil rights issues, plenty of thesps still wrestled with the role of actor as activist — much as they do today. In April 1968, in one of 11 campaign stops for McCarthy in Indiana, Newman explained his philosophy of going on the stump.
“I am not a public speaker,” Newman told a crowd as he stood on the tailgate of a station wagon, according to a New York Times report from the trail.
“I am not a politician. I’m not here because I’m an actor. I’m here because I’ve got six kids. I don’t want it written on my gravestone, ‘He was not part of his times.’ The times are too critical to be dissenting in your own bathroom.”