In a Doonesbury strip last week, John McCain’s strategists are beside themselves trying to come up with a way to fill a stadium for the candidate’s convention acceptance speech.
The solution: celebrities. But when an event producer checks a list of McCain’s star support, he comes up empty.
McCain’s adviser asks, in frustration, “Could you check again?”
It’s probably not far from the truth, as the Democratic National Convention is fast becoming a ticket as prized as the Oscars, as much a destination as Sundance and as much a media moment for “Entertainment Tonight” and “Access Hollywood” as it is for MSNBC.
Stars like Annette Bening, Susan Sarandon, Spike Lee, Rob Reiner and Ben Affleck are expected. Entertainers as diverse as Kanye West, Melissa Etheridge, the Black Eyed Peas, Stevie Wonder, Sheryl Crow and Rufus Wainwright are being lined up for convention-related events in Denver. And cabler Starz is coordinating a “Green Room,” where delegates, celebs and other VIPs can mingle, watch politically themed movies, and listen to panels on entertainment and politics.
The only thing missing are gift suites — off-limits due to stringent lobbying rules.
In politics as in Newton’s laws of physics, every action brings an equal and opposite reaction. So it doesn’t take a leap to figure how the GOP will respond.
There will be entertainment at the Republican convention in St. Paul, Minn., but save for an expected heavy lineup of country stars, it will be tough to compete given Hollywood’s affinity for Obama and the Democrats. (Current score, according to the Center for Responsive Politics: $4.4 million for Obama from the showbiz sector — more than five times McCain’s $757,546.)
But it’s likely the GOP will make hay out of the glitterati that descends on Obama’s night.
In January, when Obama and Hillary Clinton engaged in a pre-Super Tuesday debate, CNN’s cameras zeroed in on an Oscar-like audience of stars that included Steven Spielberg, Leonardo DiCaprio, Reiner and Topher Grace, earning some ridicule among conservative commentators and reps from the Republican National Committee.
And on July 22, infamous GOP attackmeister David Bossie unveiled plans for a new anti-Obama film, “HYPE: The Obama Effect,” with a trailer that casts the candidate partially as the product of Hollywood hoopla, as Obama dances with Ellen DeGeneres on her show and Wonder croons the candidate’s name. (“B-A-H-R-A-C-K OH BAH-AH-MAH!).
Even Obama’s speech before an enthusiastic crowd in Berlin drew a GOP consultant’s snide comment comparing the candidate to another sensation in Germany: “We don’t want President Hasselhoff.”
The message: It’s just too much glitz.
Should Hollywood be really worried that it will become a political punching bag? Maybe not.
Just as GOP attacks on the industry fell flat in the mid-terms of 2006, there’s a similar expectation that voters will have other concerns on their hands than whether Oprah takes the podium. (According to the Denver Post, she’s been inquiring about hotel rooms).
In Democratic conventions of the past, at least one member of the showbiz contingent has taken grief from conservative pundits; it was Affleck in 2004, Rob Lowe in 1988.
“That is the traditional contretemps people get into, and I don’t think it makes any difference whatsoever,” says Democratic consultant Bill Carrick. “When gas prices are over $4 a gallon and the economy is in really bad shape, I don’t think people are going to pay attention to all that nonsense.”
Moreover, if there is anything that the Obama campaign has proven to be particularly adept at, it’s crafting messages and images of the candidate at large-scale events. Just ask the journalists traveling with Obama overseas last week. They’ve been griping about the campaign’s tight hold. Obama advisers also have been judicious in deploying celebrity surrogates.
It goes without saying that the campaign will make sure that it deploys similar stagecraft when Obama accepts the nomination on Aug. 28 before an expected 75,000 people at Invesco Field. Just watch the networks try to pluck the famous figures out of that crowd.
“I don’t think anyone thinks this will and should be a ‘Hollywood convention,’ ” says political consultant Chad Griffin. “I expect that if anywhere celebrities are used in the convention, it will be for an appropriate purpose and will fit a particular theme.”
The Democratic National Committee has yet to announce the lineup of speakers and entertainment inside the Pepsi Center — under the guidance of exec producers Ricky Kirshner and Mark Squier.
But a handful of industry figures are scheduled to be at the convention as delegates, including Griffin, actress Erika Alexander, music industry exec Nicole Avant, Wild Brain CEO Charles Rivkin, former news anchor Giselle Fernandez, producer Wendy Wanderman and communications exec Sim Farar.
Two well-known figures from the L.A. entertainment/political scene — Jeremy Bernard, finance consultant for the Obama campaign, and longtime party veteran Roz Wyman — are superdelegates. Davis Guggenheim, who directed “An Inconvenient Truth,” is reportedly working on an Obama film, following in the footsteps of James Moll, Spike Jonze and Harry and Linda Bloodworth Thomason, who made shorts for past conventions.
Major fund-raisers are working with the campaign in securing hotel rooms — a game of politics in and of itself.
Others are championing various causes. Bono’s ONE campaign is planning events for both conventions, as it did in 2004. There’s been some talk that Jennifer Lopez would co-host a reception with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, and that Bruce Springsteen is being pursued for one of the nights. Laurie David is among those spearheading an environmentally themed concert called “Green Rocks at Red Rocks” on the Sunday before the convention, with a lineup that includes Crow, Sugarland and Earth, Wind & Fire.
The Creative Coalition — a non-partisan org that advocates for causes, not candidates — will again send delegations, led by Tim Daly and Kerry Washington, to both conventions. The Black Eyed Peas will perform at a DNC event; the Charlie Daniels Band at an RNC shindig.
And the Creative Coalition has assembled an entourage including Sarandon, Danny Glover, Quentin Tarantino, Josh Lucas and Rashida Jones to go to the DNC, and is working on a delegation for the RNC.
“I think ‘the celebrity’ is being used a lot more in the campaigns this year, but everyone is being smarter about it,” says Robin Bronk, executive director of the Creative Coalition. “The stakes are higher. It is the role of a lifetime and the supporting cast of a lifetime.”