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Variety slant puts showbiz spin on pols

In its 100-year history, Variety has sported its own savvy, albeit quirky, approach to covering presidential elections.

Admittedly, the paper didn’t quite know what to make of William Jennings Bryan’s loss to William Taft in 1908 — it was Bryan’s third tryout for the prexy role — so it didn’t do anything.

Days after that election the Weekly led with a story about a Scottish comedian named Harry Lauder and his upcoming tour through the States. There was also a squib about Mark Twain likely hitting the boards but nary a word about the presidential race and its repercussions.

But that was then. Soon after, showbiz began to loom large as a political issue — sometimes even a political football — and the paper was usually Johnny-on-the-spot in chronicling how presidents planned to deal with what used to be called “the amusement biz.”

Dialing up

Take the hot election of 1924, when Republican Calvin Coolidge defeated Dem John Davis. The paper boasted reams of coverage, though it took weeks to all trickle in.Two days after the Nov. 3 election, the weekly paper was still pondering the question of whether listeners would be glued to their newfangled radios rather than, for one thing, going to Broadway. By the following week, it was clear that radio announcers — which Variety dubbed “ether pundits” — were a hit.

Weekly Variety — there was no Daily then — also devoted a 1,000-word story to the likely changes the new Congress might enact under the administration of Silent Cal.

Some of those issues sound very familiar: “Pending bills that touch every phase of the industry — legit, vaudeville, pictures or tented attractions (our jargon for circuses!) will be considered in the main by men whose sympathies are unknown or, at least partially, so,” the paper concluded. Another hot, if now quaint, topic was Sunday closings for amusement venues: Churches were for them, Hollywood against.

Not that the paper’s priorities weren’t occasionally peculiar: Rather than a front-page box detailing last-minute election odds or issues of importance to Hollywood, the paper blazoned college football odds at the top of the page.

By 1948, things had changed considerably, and the money and power at stake in showbiz had so mushroomed that political coverage permeated the paper, Weekly and Daily.

Biz rebuffed

The biggest issue affecting Hollywood was ongoing federal antitrust suits against several motion picture heavyweights. Harry Truman — whom Daily Variety colorfully described as having “knocked prophets and pollsters gallywise” in his upset victory over Thomas Dewey — was viewed as likely to take a hard line toward Hollywood on that and other key fronts. The paper was right.

The Truman troupe lent little encouragement to film exhibs who were lobbying to reduce a hefty admissions tax, nor did it call off the dogs at the House Un-American Activities Committee who were probing alleged Reds in Hollywood.

As for how the media covered the first post-WWII election, Variety was primed to pump up its coverage of the new TV medium.

“NBC and ABC were on the air without a break, until Dewey conceded Truman’s victory, by which time Ben Grauer, Elmer Davis, John Swazey and other announcers looked ready to collapse. Broadcasters’ only complaint today is that they undersold the shows to sponsors.”

In a comment we can all relate to today, Daily Variety opined, “Nobody had any idea the coverage would run so late.”

On the sidelines

In 1960, Daily Variety decidedly underplayed the John Kennedy-Richard Nixon contest, though it did carry a front-page story two days later that a record 80 million TV viewers tuned in to election results — an all-time peak at the time. Paper also broke the story that film rights to Robert Kennedy’s bestseller about labor racketeering, “The Enemy Within,” was again up for grabs in the wake of his brother’s White House win.

Eight years later, Variety‘s coverage of television in general had deepened and widened. It was also the heyday of heavyweight news anchors like Huntley-Brinkley and Cronkite, while newfangled graphics and gizmos graced the small screen as never before. Paper’s front-page story on Wednesday dealt with “the massive saturation coverage” by the three nets of the tight race between Richard Nixon and Dem challenger Hubert Humphrey.

If you thought the squeaker between Kerry and Bush was unique, here’s what Daily Variety said about the battle in ’68, another highly divisive period in our history: “Despite all those computers and complex machines that help the nets in their analyses of votes, the American people were spared this and given a real thriller Tuesday night. When most viewers finally went to bed, the outcome was still unknown.”

In an interesting indication of just how much more individual moguls rather than congloms mattered, Variety suggested which studio titans were likely to have an in with the new administration and which might likely get the cold shoulder. Among those supposedly getting better access were Warners’ Jack Warner and Fox’s Darryl Zanuck; among those on the outs were, per Variety, MCA’s Lew Wasserman and LBJ’s appointee to the MPAA, Jack Valenti. (Needless to say, the paper got it wrong regarding the latter two.)

Inside man

Not surprisingly, the 1980 election repped a high mark for Variety‘s political coverage since one of Hollywood’s own, Ronald Reagan, rode to victory over incumbent prexy Jimmy Carter. Three front-page stories in Daily Variety on Thursday, Nov. 4, analyzed the election from various vantage points, including the euphoric Wall Street reaction, upcoming changes at the Federal Communications Commission and the many political-showbiz ties that Reagan epitomized.

Nor did the paper neglect the all-important “social” implications of the Reagan victory. Said Army Archerd in his column: “Before Ronnie and Nancy head to D.C., H’wood hostesses are hoping to land the first couple for film functions, preems, etc. Last p.m. the Reagans dined at Chasen’s, also Nixon’s favorite eatery here. Security liked the president’s choice — it’s easy to work the place.”

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