Showbiz figures venturing into presidential politics are getting a reminder that jokes and stray gestures can draw laughs one minute and become polarizing in the next.
The latest is Robert De Niro, who along with his wife, Grace Hightower, hosted first lady Michelle Obama for a fund-raiser at their Manhattan eatery on Monday evening.
Before the first lady addressed the crowd of about 85 people, De Niro gave an introduction in which he quipped, “Callista Gingrich. Karen Santorum. Ann Romney. Now do you really think our country is ready for a white first lady?” According to a pool report from the evening, the line drew a roar of laughs, and De Niro added, “Too soon, right?”
The joke drew a sharp rebuke from Newt Gingrich, who has staked part of his campaign on railing against media and Washington elites.
He charged that De Niro’s remark was divisive and called on President Obama to apologize.
“What De Niro said last night was inexcusable, and the president should apologize for him. It was at an Obama fundraiser. It is exactly wrong; it divides the country,” Gingrich said during a campaign stop on Tuesday in Louisiana, according to CNN.
Then a campaign spokeswoman for the first lady called De Niro’s joke “inappropriate.”
De Niro later issued a statement through his spokesman, saying, “My remarks, although spoken with satirical jest, were not meant to offend or embarrass anyone — especially the first lady.”
If there’s anything to be learned from the flap, it is that it is bound to happen again, as the hyperpartisan environment makes just about anything a celebrity surrogate says ripe for attention. Gingrich went on to characterize De Niro as an out-of-touch movie star, mining familiar territory for many Republicans who have targeted Democrats heavy support from Hollywood. Others at the De Niro event included Star Jones, Angela Bassett and Ben Stiller. Beyonce and Harvey Weinstein also were spotted at one point during the fund-raiser.
Gingrich also suggested that the De Niro remark could be equated with those of Rush Limbaugh, who lost sponsors after calling a Georgetown law student a “slut.”
“De Niro is rich enough he probably doesn’t notice the price of gasoline,” Gingrich said, per CNN. “He’s successful enough he probably doesn’t notice the unemployment rate. As the Hollywood actor, he might well be shortsighted enough he doesn’t understand what it might do to our children and our grandchildren.”
Just last week, when Cee Lo Green performed at a fundraiser for President Obama in Atlanta, the singer dropped an f-bomb and flipped his middle finger. Although he was criticized on Fox News’ “Hannity” and elsewhere, he was unapologetic for what has been part of his repertoire.
Lara Bergthold, political and philanthropic adviser to Norman Lear, organized celebrity surrogates for John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. She noted that De Niro’s remarks were made at a fund-raiser, not a campaign rally, so the venue is a bit different. But she also said that controversy over celebrity comments is “sort of part of the playbook. It is old and tired.”
She also questioned whether voters are really listening to such tiffs at a time when economic issues are front and center.
“The newspapers will make a big fuss, but voters aren’t listening,” Bergthold said.
She also noted that surrogates aren’t candidates — as much as partisans try to create such linkage. The Daily Caller, a website started by conservative Tucker Carlson, on Tuesday posted a video of Tom Hanks co-hosting an auction for his children’s Pacific Palisades school in 2004, in which one man appeared in blackface as part of the skit. Hanks condemned the skit after the video was posted, and said he was “blindsided’ by the man’s appearance, but the Caller also noted in its story that Hanks narrates the Obama campaign film, “The Road We’ve Traveled,” released last week.
In 2004, Whoopi Goldberg appeared at a fundraiser for Kerry in which she made sexual puns about President George W. Bush. Slim-Fast dropped her as a spokesperson.
Celebs aligned on the other side of the political spectrum, of course, have gotten their share of pushback for political comments as well.
Already this cycle, Ted Nugent called the Obama adminstration “America haters” just weeks before endorsing Romney. Hank Williams Jr., who has performed for GOP presidential nominees in recent cycles, used an analogy to Hitler in talking about Obama, and soon after ESPN stopped using one of his signature songs from “Monday Night Football.”
But Bergthold noted that when it came to sending celebrities on the trail, the campaign would give them talking points but not a “talking to.” While the campaign wants candidates to speak clearly about the issues, “You also want them to be talking in their own words. Authenticity is key.”