Hollywood’s New Hot Spot: The Hill

Pitt Just this past week has seen Richard Gere, LeAnn Rimes and Paul Simon in D.C., pushing signature causes.

Stars seeking support is nothing new on Capitol Hill. What is new is that, with Democrats in charge of the White House and Congress, there is a new sense of sychronicity.

In the past couple of weeks, Brad Pitt has met with Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on rebuilding New Orleans, and George Clooney sat down with Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden in separate gatherings to talk about Darfur. Richard Gere appeared at an event with Pelosi on Monday to talk about the plight of Tibet.

There was outright jubuliation on Monday from Michael J. Fox, director-producer Jerry Zucker and others when Obama lifted restrictions on stem cell research, a cause that his predecessor vehemently opposed. Hollywood activists lobbied lawmakers for years to lift the ban, but Bush vetoed it.

The meetings with Obama have been especially notable, because they have happened so early in his administration. Clooney’s meeting, in fact, took place before the administration had completed a policy review of Darfur. But advisers say the actor found the situation in Darfur so dire that he sought out a meeting with Obama right after visiting the region. Clooney seized on the opportunity to call for a special envoy to the region, and, facing reporters on the White House lawn as he exited his meeting, he announced that the adminstration was prepared to do just that.

Pitt’s meeting with Obama was much more low key than one he had later in the day with Pelosi, who stood with the actor before a row of TV cameras and pledged continued attention to the rebuilding of New Orleans. There was little mention of specifics, but in his meeting with the president, they talked about the actor’s Make It Right Foundation, which rebuilds homes in the Lower Ninth Ward in architectually innovative, environmentally friendly designs. At issue was whether the low-cost housing project could be expanded elsewhere. Obama’s recently passed stimulus package includes funding for green building projects.

It should be noted that President Bush did hold meetings with Bono and other celebrity activists, and Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz even met in 2003 with Scooter Libby, then Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff, to talk about German treatment of Scientologists.

“The issue with Bush wasn’t that high profile figures wouldn’t go meet with him; it was that they didn’t see eye to eye on the issues,” said political consultant Donna Bojarsky. “It is not so much that [Obama’s adminstration] are being receptive to the industry as it is they share goals and interests.”

In fact, the onslaught of stars and their causes has been so great that when Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan testified before a congressional hearing on Tuesday, the nature of his concern stood out because he was lobbying for his own (and fellow musicians’) financial interests. He called for payment for recording artists when their music is played on broadcast radio stations. 

Simon More common is the nature of singer Paul Simon’s appearance on Wednesday with Pelosi in a press availability at the Capitol. He was there on behalf of the Children’s Health Fund, and offered praise to Pelosi for the expansion of the the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, one of his signature issues. President Bush vetoed other moves to expand funding for the program twice before President Obama signed it into law last month.

Simon acknowledged the bevy of issues facing congressional leaders during the economic crisis, but said that “those that suffer the most are the children.” He urged continued action on child poverty, despite diminshed resources in many states. (The video is here.) Also on the Hill was Lee Ann Rimes, who lobbied for a bill to increase funding for research into psoriasis.

The risks for Obama’s administration and Congressional leaders are obvious: that they will appear to be devoting too much time to narrow, celebrity-led interests or, even worse, that they are star struck.

But as defenders of the actor-activists will tell you, it’s hard to argue over the urgency of an issue like Darfur, or the need to build shelter almost four years after Katrina. For now, the agendas are in alignment.

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