Charlton Heston is one of the world’s great squinters. Years ago, as a very young television writer, I found myself on the receiving end of one of his most squinched-up expressions.
We were at some charity event, I think. I can’t remember exactly why I was there, but at the time I was 23 and had about $3 in the bank, so whatever reason I had, it wasn’t a very good one. But there was Heston, holding a glass of white wine and squinting across the crowd, so I marched over and introduced myself. I opened with a little joke.
“Mr. Heston,” I said, “I just want to introduce myself. I’m a Republican, too, and I guess if a bomb dropped on this room tonight, there wouldn’t be any Republicans left in Hollywood. I mean, you and I are the only Republicans around, I think.” Weak laugh from me; vaguely mirthful squint from him.
“On the other hand,” I continued, winding up for the punchline, “statistically speaking, one out of every three Hollywood Republicans goes on to become president of the United States.”
I paused for laughter, which came in grave chuckles. Then he turned serious.
“Well,” he squinted, “there are plenty of Republicans in Hollywood, but there aren’t too many conservatives.”
I had only been in Hollywood a few months, and I was still struggling with sensory overload, so I didn’t really hear his words. I could only watch his eyes narrow and lips move soundlessly. The only voice I heard was my own, rattling around inside my head: Holy Christ, I’m talking to Charlton freakin’ Heston! His head is, like, huge. I guess all movie stars have big heads. And he talks just like you’d think Charlton Heston would. He’s like … the thinking man’s William Shatner. Hey, what’s he squinting at? Later, driving home in my smoking and squeaky Subaru, I suddenly thought to myself, Wait a minute. There are “plenty” of Republicans in Hollywood?
Because really, back in those days, I thought I was the only one. I remember voting in my first California election in my Santa Monica neighborhood. The polling place was in an old surf shop and the volunteers sat behind a long table with stacks of unpunched ballots and a master list of all registered voters in the district, checking people in, crossing them off the list, handing them their ballot, and every so often, handing out oatmeal cookies and lemon squares.
It was a distinctly Southern California kind of all-American scene: six older ladies in tennis dresses and sun visors cheerfully herding frazzled moms, still-dripping surfers, ex-hippies, yuppies, quasihomeless — the whole weird pageant of Santa Monica citizenry — through the process of republican government. It was a loose and chaotic experience, and when you saw the battered old box for collecting ballots (no lid, no lock) and the tattered master list of eligible voters (faded computer ink; “as of 10/15/78” written at the top), well, it didn’t fill you with confidence about the sanctity of the process. It was Jeffersonian democracy, maybe — but Airplane, not Thomas. But it was a fun party. Plus, you got a cookie. And a sticker that read, “I Have Voted! Have You?”
It was in the early ’90s — the California gubernatorial primary. It was a party election, meaning that each voter selected a nominee from among his party.
I walked into the polling place at about 8:30 in the morning, its busiest time. A smiling older woman, Janice, was at the desk. I gave her my name and address.
Her face lit up. “Oh! You’re Rob!” She called over to the other ladies. “Hey, everyone! It’s Rob!”
They all crowded around me, smiling happily.
“Did I win something?” I asked.
“No, no,” said Janice, laughing. “It’s just that, well, we were hoping you’d come. When we set out the ballots this morning we noticed how … well, how special you are.”
She waved to the stacks of unpunched ballots. On one side, a tall sloping pile — almost two feet tall — of ballots marked “DEMOCRAT.” And on the other, a single, lonely ballot marked “REPUBLICAN.” Mine. For me. Santa Monica’s special, special voter.
“I’m it?” I asked, incredulously.
The ladies nodded, grinning.
“Wow,” I said.
“Lemon bar?” one of the ladies offered, helpfully.
Locally, of course, Santa Monica — sometimes referred to as the People’s Republic of Santa Monica for its way-out politics — is more often the site of bitter feuds between members of the ultraleft. You know, Greens vs. Socialists, Lenin vs. Trotsky, those who believe that America is a wholly owned subsidiary of the capitalist corporate machine vs. those who believe that America is a wholly owned subsidiary of the corporate capitalist machine. And nationally, California is such a reflexively Democratic state that the last two Republican presidential candidates campaigned here only half-heartedly. And didn’t win, either.
The only elephant in miles
But still. I’m used to being the only Republican within a large radius. I have worked as a Hollywood writer and producer for almost 13 years, and the (very) few of us who actually think Republican (that is, small government, low taxes) and who actually vote Republican, aren’t terribly excited about being Republican. Out loud, anyway. We tend to keep to ourselves, mutter under our breath, don’t make waves and gaze out at the offshore oil derricks with a private pleasure we dare not name.
In fact, the Hollywood political community is a slightly more upscale version of my Santa Monica polling-place experience: cheerful, yes; friendly, of course; but terribly, embarrassingly kittywhumpus.
“Aren’t you humiliated,” a friendly neighbor once asked me, “to be the only Republican around? I mean, doesn’t that make you think that maybe your beliefs are, like, crazy?”
Perversely, the same Democrats who praise “diversity” and “choice” tend to make exceptions for people like me, who espouse appalling political ideas like, well, low taxes and small government and school choice. Or, worse, they tend to lump us all in together, the fire-breathing far-right crowd and the gun nuts and the gay-haters with the California-casual school choicers and capital gains tax elimination advocators, which is about as fair as, say, calling all Democrats commie pinko, fellow-traveling, anti-Semite, terrorist-appeasing Stalinists just because that’s what John Kerry is.
That was a joke, OK? I’m kidding here.