Hollywood’s primary colors

Pundits love to paint the town’s politics in black and white, but the underlying color to its decisions has always been green.

With primary season upon us, the various ideologues of Fox News and talk radio are asking, “How will the Hollywood liberals position themselves?”

Behind their question lie two false assumptions. The first is that the denizens of the entertainment industry pursue the same lockstep thinking as the pundits of the far right. Anyone paying even glancing attention to the Limbaughs and Hannitys has to marvel at how they instantly rally to any position of the Bush administration, no matter how greatly it may diverge from campaign pledges.

The president could double government spending, raise taxes and grant U.S. citizenship to the entire population of Libya without surrendering the ardent support of these ideological groupies.

This extraordinary loyalty is even harder to grasp given Bush’s mercurial policies. As a free-spender, he makes Franklin D. Roosevelt seem a symbol of puritanical parsimony. And surely no president since Lyndon Johnson has lied so egregiously on matters of war.

All this helps underscore the second false assumption: that Hollywood is ruled by some sort of shadow liberal establishment. No one to my knowledge has ever taken a poll of the entertainment community asking, “Do you consider yourself on the left or the right?” My hunch is that the results would be evenly split.

The Schwarzenegger phenomenon has also clouded the picture. Hollywood was restrained in its support of Arnold’s gubernatorial quest, and the Terminator was similarly restrained in seeking it.

But now it’s becoming increasingly clear to reasonable minds that Schwarzenegger has a good chance of becoming an effective and intelligent governor. If he succeeds, he may also liberate the California Republican Party from the grip of its far-right rulers — politicians who would prefer to lose every election than compromise on an issue like women’s rights.

Schwarzenegger, of course, is liberal on so-called social policies but actually envisions a lid on government spending — surely a combination of doctrines that utterly confuses the Bushies.

Though the Streisand-and-Geffen liberals have a lock on media attention, there are a lot of fiscal conservatives in Hollywood, as there would be in any wealthy community. I’ve never seen a study of the industry’s median income, but here’s an interesting clue: The median income of a reader of Daily Variety is $434,000 a year. Those big dollars spell big taxes, and I suspect there are many smart folks out here who also worry about the tax burden being handed down to their children.

To be sure, some of Hollywood’s leaders had a happy courtship with Bill Clinton. They found Clinton to be a cool guy, albeit a poor listener. The few who’ve penetrated Bush’s sanctum sanctorum also have found him a cool guy, but as a fraternity brother, not as a president. Whereas Clinton didn’t listen, Bush is simply not interested. Or, as his former Treasury Secretary, Paul O’Neill put it, he acts “like a blind man in a room full of deaf people.”

If Hollywood’s artisans are fretful about the presidency, its executive class increasingly reminds me of the late Lew Wasserman on political matters.

Wasserman was the ultimate corporate ideologue: That is, he would raise money for any candidate who would help his company, whether it was Ronald Reagan or Jimmy Carter. With the exception of Rupert Murdoch (who regards himself as a classical liberal, whatever that means), most executives are career pragmatists who tilt neither left nor right. Their fear is drift and instability.

The upshot is that Hollywood is taking the same wary attitude on the Democratic primaries as it took on Schwarzenegger. There’s an incipient wellspring of backing for Dean and yet another for Wesley Clark — since Clark’s son is a screenwriter, how bad can he be?

Rob Reiner and Martin Sheen went to Iowa to stump for Dean (I admire their zeal, but their act apparently didn’t play well in Sioux City, judging from the caucus results). But there are also many who’d rally to the president’s side if they became convinced his policies would yield economic recovery, a resolution in Iraq and continued support for Israel.

But unlike the pundits of talk radio, Hollywood is not going to give knee-jerk assent to every White House “talking point.”

The funny thing about pragmatists is that they actually look for results.

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