Latest Column: The Right’s Hollywood Might

Hollywood already is being branded on the right as a lapdog for the Democratic Party in 2012, and an easy target that is out of touch with the American heartland. But a new book shows that it’s conservatives who originally embraced the entertainment industry — and have used it to the greatest effect.

That’s my latest column in the print version of Variety, which you can read below.

This past week there was no shortage of symbolism about former actor and president Ronald Reagan as candidates jostled at a debate at the Gipper’s presidential library. More than likely, though, this history will not stop Republicans from invoking Hollywood as a favorite target.

Radio talkshow hosts, bloggers and the entire Big Hollywood website are devoted to castigating the indulgences of liberal entertainment elites — even though it’s industry conservatives who have been more effective in influencing electoral politics than their counterparts on the left.

It’s a point that’s underscored in historian Steven J. Ross’ meticulously researched and well-plotted new book, “Hollywood Left and Right; How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics.”

It’s not just the incongruity that those stars who have taken the plunge into party politics — Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sonny Bono — have come from the right. According to Ross, as the left has dominated much political activity in Hollywood, devoted to issues and causes of all sorts, the right has been much more skillful in exploiting Hollywood’s gift for narrative.

Republicans, not Democrats, established the first beachhead in Hollywood, as mogul Louis B. Mayer all but linked MGM, the most powerful studio of its day, to the Republican party. As liberal Hollywood was on the rise in the 1930s, Mayer brought in prominent Republicans to talk, educate, even cajole his stable of stars, creating a kind of public-speaker’s training ground. His aide, Ida Koverman, instructed stars to talk in shorty pithy sentences rather than over an audience’s head — a precursor to the sound bite.

Where Mayer is a legend, another influential figure was all but forgotten — song-and-dance man George Murphy, who was building ties to the Republican party through the ’30s and ’40s, and was savvy enough to help shape “a new era of image politics.” He saw that selling the candidate was more important than selling the message, and through movies came to believe that people “wanted to identify with politicians in the same way they identified with movie stars.”

Murphy was Thomas E. Dewey’s media man in 1948, instructing him to be less stiff. “Why don’t you spill some gravy on your vest and brush it off? It will make you look a little more human,” he was purported to have said. The Republican nominee in the next cycle, Dwight D. Eisenhower, heeded his advice, and Murphy coached him to be more relaxed and confident, particularly in the emerging medium of television.

By the time Murphy ran for Senate in California in 1964, and opponents sought to dismiss him by referring to him derisively as a “former hoofer,” he saw that as a benefit. Many people voted for him for his good-guy image, and he went on to defeat Democrat Pierre Salinger.

“Everything that Reagan did, Murphy did first, except Reagan was even better at it,” Ross says.

The Hollywood left has focused on causes, not political careers, undoubtedly with enormous effect in helping bring attention to issues or to various agendas, and Ross lays it out with profiles of Jane Fonda, Warren Beatty and Harry Belafonte, among others. But he writes that from the earliest days, Republicans have been able to “act with greater impunity than their left counterparts.” “From Louis B. Mayer to Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Hollywood right has told a simple but compelling story of American trimphalism: America is the greatest nation in the world. What more do you need to know?” As Ross sees it, this has been a more powerful fusion with the right’s message of fear and reassurance than the left’s hope and guilt.

Ross challenges perceptions that a more sophisticated mix of politics and entertainment are a new phenomenon, but also shows how Hollywood helped set in motion the dynamics of narrative that remain true today. Barack Obama proved an exception in his 2008 campaign, which offered a storyline of hope and, instead of guilt, “change we can believe in.” His challenge will be beating back an opposition party that, with a lot of help from Hollywood through the years, has been much more skillful at delivering that kind of message.

The right may bemoan Hollywood as a lapdog for the left, but often it misses the point that the real struggle isn’t for celebrity but for the story. So if Obama doesn’t have a compelling one a year from now, he may want to opt for something a little different. Like spilling a little gravy on his shirt.

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