Whether Barack Obama or John McCain wins the presidency next week, the Washington-Hollywood social nexus is likely to change.
An Obama presidency would do the most to alter the landscape of D.C.’s social scene and the way that industry figures carry out their favorite causes. Obama also could display a propensity as chief executive to call on Hollywood for help.
It would surely be a contrast to nearly eight years in which President Bush has all but shunned the entertainment industry and its trappings.
“There are some parallels to when John F. Kennedy came to town and there were big, social relations between Hollywood and Washington,” said Dan Glickman, chairman of the Motion Picture Assn. of America.
Hollywood had connections to Washington long before Kennedy arrived in the White House, but he was the first president who had social ties to numerous Hollywood stars and moguls.
Via campaign contributions and public endorsements, Obama has enjoyed overwhelming support from the industry, and those ties could very well extend into invites to state dinners, White House screenings of new films and support for arts endeavors. As part of his campaign, Obama formed an arts policy committee that includes George Stevens Jr., Broadway producer Margo Lion and author Michael Chabon.
Like Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline in 1960, the Obamas are “a very bright, very handsome, very well-educated young couple,” said Chuck Conconi, who has chronicled D.C.’s high-powered social scene for three decades. “I think you’ll see a lot more people in the arts coming to town than in the last eight years.”
Glickman agreed, adding that younger people in particular will be drawn to Washington under an Obama administration. “The excitement of people under 40 for Obama is profound,” Glickman said, “so I think it’s going to bring a lot of young people in the entertainment world here.”
The youth factor alone will provoke “radical change” that in turn will generate “an enormous amount of vitality,” said Sally Quinn, a veteran writer for the Washington Post’s noted Style section and a regular (with husband Ben Bradlee) on the power-dinner circuit.
Karen Feld, another longtime observer of the D.C. social scene, doesn’t see the JFK comparison — “I’m old enough to remember the Kennedy administration,” she said — but she acknowledged that an Obama administration “would definitely attract a lot of Hollywood types because Democrats always do. So you’re definitely going to see that type of glamour around here that you haven’t seen with the Bush administration.”
The Bush administration has been short on most things socially. White House screening invites are far and few between.
“He’s dull,” Feld said of the current president. “He doesn’t drink, he goes to bed by 9 p.m., and he and his wife are not partygoers.”
They aren’t big party-throwers, either.
“They’ve had maybe a half-dozen state dinners in eight years,” Feld said. “No big entertainment events, no A-list guest lists.”
One reason the Bush administration hasn’t hosted more events has to do with the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In the depressing aftermath, nobody felt like throwing blowout bashes, and even if they had, it would hardly have been advisable from a PR standpoint. In the last year or so, however, the administration has returned to hosting some events, Quinn noted, but not many.
Similarly, with people losing their homes and their retirement savings in jeopardy, the next president can’t afford to be seen throwing lavish soirees — particularly at taxpayers’ expense. Quinn thinks an Obama administration would do more informal entertaining and socializing than formal. “Although with our reputation so sullied around the world, they may want to reach out to countries by hosting more state dinners,” she added.
Glickman cautioned Obama along related lines. “If he wins, Obama would be best advised not to turn Washington into a hub for the entertainment world.”
That’s why there are doubts that Obama would embrace Hollywood in quite the same way as Bill Clinton, who seemed to relish mingling with stars, directors and producers, either in the White House or in his visits to Los Angeles. Obama’s campaign has made judicious use of his connections, and, for good reason, has tried to limit his appearances with stars on the campaign trail.
But socializing will be necessary if only because in Washington, partying is politics by other means.
“Whenever a new president is elected, it doesn’t take long before he runs into trouble,” said Conconi. “So for help he needs to take advantage of people who have been here a long time. When you bring members of Congress over for dinner and you wine and dine them, it really makes a difference when you’re trying to accomplish something legislatively.”
Both Conconi and Quinn think that a McCain presidency would mean business-as-usual on the D.C. social scene.
“McCain’s people are all old Washington people who’ve been here the last 40 years, so there wouldn’t be much change in the scenery,” Quinn said.
“McCain could be better than Bush, but it’s doubtful,” Conconi said. “In doing this for 30 years, I’ve seen very little of him or (wife) Cindy on the circuit.”
More than likely that’s due to Cindy McCain’s living in Arizona — not D.C. — since 1984. The senator works here, then travels home.
“She doesn’t like Washington,” Quinn said. “That’s not going to change if he wins.”
Feld disagreed, saying, “There’s a lot of glamour attached to Cindy,” and noting that the candidate’s mother, Roberta McCain, who is in her 90s, “still loves a party.”
But McCain has shown an affinity for the entertainment business — he attended dinner parties and lunches and fostered friendships on both sides of the aisle before he was a presidential candidate. While his support is smaller within the industry, it includes such notables as MGM chief Harry Sloan, actors Robert Duvall, Jon Voight and Sylvester Stallone and producer Jerry Bruckheimer.
At the very least, many hope for more channels between Hollywood and the White House, and there is some expectation that that will happen no matter who occupies the Oval Office.
Both candidates may be more apt than Bush to use their industry connections to tap into the biz for help in pushing messages from their bully pulpit. Irena Medavoy, an Obama backer, said: “People here are so ready to roll up their sleeves and say, ‘Where do you need us?’”
(Ted Johnson in Hollywood contributed to this report.)