My Top Five: Where Hollywood Mattered in 2012

I’ll throw in with just about everyone else gathering lists this week, with my picks for the top five stories on my beat these past 12 months, or top put it another way, where show biz had the most impact on the political process. The caveats are that this is entirely subjective (I’m not Nate Silver here) and there are still a couple of stories that have yet to play out (like the impact of “Zero Dark Thirty”).

Bill-maher-smile5. Bill Maher’s $1 million donation to Priorities USA. Other entertainment
industry figures, like Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg, gave more, but
Bill Maher’s $1 million check to the Obama SuperPAC in March generated the
publicity, and perhaps the sense of urgency, that GOP superdonors were prepared
to spend unlimited sums to defeat President Obama. Maher’s money
may not have led to a cascade of industry money flowing to Priorities, but it did help the org run Bain ads in the late spring that defined Mitt Romney
before he could define himself.

4. Big Bird at the debate. Mitt Romney’s reference to a
Muppet in the first presidential debate provoked a conversation about the value
of government funding for public broadcasting. Yet it also helped highlight the
new role of social media in coverage of presidential matchups, as Big Bird became an instant meme on Facebook and Twitter, a prelude to the second and third debates. In an otherwise strong first debate, Romney may nevertheless have handed the Obama campaign easy fodder as it focused on the futility of his budget proposals. It was pure campaign silliness, but public television and its Muppet lobby prevailed.

3. Joseph Biden’s gathering of gay Hollywood. Just two weeks
before the Vice President announced his support for same-sex marriage
on “Meet the Press,” he told a gathering of gay donors at the home of HBO
programming chief Michael Lombardo the same thing. The result was a cascading
series of events that led to President Obama announcing, before he was prepared
to do so, that he supports same-sex marriage. That helped Obama ensure lopsided
LGBT support, which some studies have said were consequential in the fall
campaign. But it also underscored the power of Hollywood, not only in
presenting LGBT characters in primetime, but for the role of industry activists
in financing campaigns and other actions. The most impactful one, the case against Proposition 8, is on its way to the Supreme Court.

2. George Clooney’s $15 million fundraiser. President Obama
and plenty of his Democratic predecessors have had starry Hollywood
fundraisers, but his May event at George Clooney’s Studio City home was
different. With a contest in which online donors could win tickets to the Clooney fete, the campaign found a way to fuse the elite big dollar donor events with single and double digit online contributions.
It helped inject some energy in the Obama campaign’s effort to boost small
dollar donations, and was repeated over and over again until election day, as
well as by other candidates. The relentless fund-raising emails may have gotten a bit creepy at times, but they worked, and
helped the campaign surpass the $1 billion mark.



1. Clint Eastwood’s empty chair speech. Clint was supposed to
add some pizazz and gravitas to the final hour and final night of the
Republican National Convention. Instead, it may have been the point during that week that the
Romney campaign truly faltered, diminishing a convention bounce that could
have helped carry it into the fall campaign. While you can argue over whether
this was the moment when everything went off the rails, Eastwood’s incoherent speech
was a metaphor for the campaign’s demographic and messaging troubles to
come: An aging white actor railing against President Obama but giving voters
few reasons to like Romney. The irony is that Republicans are the ones usually
chiding Democrats for falling head over heels for celebrities, but in this case
it was conservatives who fell into the trap of being too star struck.

    Photos: Bill Maher, HBO; Republican National Convention, Ted Johnson

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