Flashback to 1968

This is a story that runs in weekly Variety this Sunday, looking back at the momentus year 1968 and the birth of a new era of celebrity activism.

Forty years ago, when President Lyndon Johnson suffered crushing results in the New Hampshire primary and decided to exit the race, some of his advisers pointed to an unlikely reason for challenger Eugene McCarthy’s success: Paul Newman.

It wasn’t too far off the mark, as Newman proved to be a tireless campaigner for McCarthy, then a relatively unknown U.S. senator from Minnesota, and in the process reflected a new level of celebrity activism.

As pop and politics mix to new and almost surreal levels in 2008, the roots  of their integration are in 1968. In that eventful year, Hollywood took a much more active role in what would prove to be a tumultuous presidential election. Motivated by the country’s involvement in Vietnam and the growing civil rights protests at home, no longer muted by 1950s fears of blacklist and bolstered by the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan to the California governorship, more of Hollywood began to speak out and stump for candidates, and in a louder voice.

John Frankenheimer directed and produced ads for Robert Kennedy (below); Newman and Arthur Miller went to the Democratic convention as McCarthy delegates; Jackie Gleason introduced Richard Nixon before a live TV telethon (below).


Primetime programs became so political that CBS sent out an edict early in the year demanding that no variety shows name any candidate as a comedy punchline. That didn’t stop the Stephen Colbert-esque Pat Paulsen from running his first satirical campaign for president on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.”

1968_5 As Ron Brownstein writes of the year in “The Power and the Glitter,” “As politics came to be seen as more packaged, slicker, more like acting, many stars felt less anxiety about using celebrity as a political tool.”

Up until then, stars were like window dressing: a wave, a few words, maybe a song. That was it.

“In the 1950s, a lot of them would have nothing to do with politics,” says veteran political consultant Joe Cerrell. “They were afraid they would be considered communists if they got too involved.”

By 1968, as television coverage became a decisive factor in presidential campaigns, the candidates caught on to the value of Hollywood stardust. As “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” was vaulting to the country’s top show on TV, Nixon broke from his general election campaign to appear on the show and recite the show’s signature catchphrase, “Sock it to me.” (below) The bit added a much-needed dose of hipness to his campaign, which was sold as the “New Nixon” but rooted in the Silent Majority.

Old Hollywood — Ray Bolger, Rudy Vallee, John Wayne — embraced the Republican candidate. But there was little doubt that the younger generations of industry leaned liberal. They flooded Democratic campaigns with offers to help, in any way possible.

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