Brentwood is ground zero for much of the political activity in the showbiz community — presidents and political candidates raise money at mogul’s mansions, liberal activists gather friends and family for spirited salons. But one of the highest-profile events in the Los Angeles neighborhood so far this cycle has belonged not to the Hollywood left, but to the right.
It was a speech Donald Trump gave last July to the conservative showbiz group Friends of Abe, just weeks into his insurgent campaign but late enough for the candidate to have become a lightning rod of controversy. Outside, protesters chanted and waved Trump effigies as the LAPD controlled the crowd. Inside, more than 300 well-heeled supporters packed a meeting room at the Luxe Hotel to listen to Trump’s showmanship — and respond to him with wild applause.
“It is exactly what we try to avoid generally,” says Jeremy Boreing, the executive director of Friends of Abe. “We didn’t know we were stepping into any kind of firestorm. It obviously was pretty wild, and we never had any of our events leaked to the media.”
For more than a decade, Friends of Abe, which numbers about 2,300, according to Boreing, has been an outlet for Hollywood conservatives, both above and below the line — a fellowship of the right and center-right in a business that leans left. It has drawn to its gatherings a list of speakers that represents a veritable who’s who of Republican and conservative politics, including Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina, Karl Rove, John Boehner and Paul Ryan. Its membership, and those who have attended meetings, include Kelsey Grammer, Jon Voight, Patricia Heaton and Clint Eastwood. Gary Sinise was a chief founder before stepping away from the group several years ago.
Now, Friends of Abe is at a crossroads. Last week it announced that it would “wind down” the hard-fought IRS non-profit organization. It said it would stop collecting member dues and do away with costly infrastructure, including its website. Instead, its leadership says, it will become a less centralized group that will still hold events, although cost logistics have to be worked out.
The organization was premised on being private — a fellowship where members “could be who they were and think what they thought without being criticized,” says writer-producer Lionel Chetwynd, a founder.
Friends of Abe has been less about countering the industry’s leftward tilt than about creating a comfort zone for those who disagree with it. While Eastwood and Voight are examples of outspoken conservatives who haven’t killed their careers by expressing their views, there has been a perception among less famous names — particularly by those just starting out in the business — that there is a degree of risk in “coming out” as right-wing. In a hyper-competitive industry, the thinking goes, an on-set political argument that devolves into a personal squabble can make or break a chance at future employment.
|“Any time you meet people with a shared value system, there is going to be a quick connection.”
Boreing, a producer from Slaton, Texas, recalls an incident in the early 2000s. He was parking on the CBS Radford lot in Studio City and ran into a “well-known TV actress” who grabbed his arm and said, “Is that your pickup with a Bush/Cheney bumper sticker in our parking lot?” When he answered affirmatively, she replied, “Kid, you got balls of steel.”
Friends of Abe members participate in dinners, drinks (often at Barney’s Beanery in West Hollywood) and speaker events. New members are introduced at regular lunches.
During the Bush years, arguments about his administration became polarizing, Boreing says, and those times were particularly difficult for conservatives in the industry.
“Some [people] are in situations where they don’t feel they can be true to themselves or express themselves politically,” he says. “Any time you meet people with a shared value system, there is going to be a quick connection. A lot of people come into these new-member lunches and they have been working in the industry for a lifetime.”
Chetwynd, the dean of Hollywood conservatives, notes that the origins of Friends of Abe go back to 2004, when he and Sinise were guests on CNBC’s “Dennis Miller.” They started to talk by phone and then set up lunches, joined by others.
“We started talking about real issues, and we would meet more regularly, and Gary would start to find more and more people who would seem to agree,” Chetwynd recalls. After a while, they got 25-30 names and built an email list.
Chetwynd thought they had the makings of a group to publicly counter Hollywood liberalism; Sinise imagined a place where conservatives could privately be themselves. Chetwynd says he came around to Sinise’s point of view: “Don’t offer a spear, offer a seat.”
The term “Friends of Abe” is a nod to the first Republican president and to Friends of Bill, the coded phrase for membership in Alcoholics Anonymous, and Friends of Dorothy, for closeted gays. The premise wasn’t to be secret but to be private — off limits to the press and general public.
They planned a gathering to see who would show up. It was held at Heaton’s home later in 2004 and drew about 125 people, Chetwynd says, followed a few weeks later by a confab at the home of Grammer, with three times that number attending.
Friends of Abe staged several summer bashes on the ranch of David Murdock, the billionaire owner of the Dole Food Co., sometimes drawing more than 1,000 people, and word of the group’s existence seeped out in blogs and articles.
Given the names of those who have addressed FOA, it was inevitable the group wouldn’t be kept under wraps for long. Eric Cantor, at the time a Virginia congressman, and Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) were among the initial major speakers, and a list of nationally known conservatives has followed. The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia addressed the group in 2012, a fact that showed up in the high court’s financial disclosure forms.
In 2014, FOA gained a degree of notoriety when it tried to obtain 501(c)3 nonprofit status. The IRS raised concerns about the political nature of the organization, and the group had issues with a government request for access to its membership roster — something FOA refused to give. Boreing appeared on Fox News’ “The Kelly File” to talk about the situation, and stories appeared in the press. The IRS eventually granted the status, but with last week’s announcement, membership gatherings will no longer face IRS restrictions on political activity.
The wild GOP primary race has created spirited splits among the group’s members — particularly as Californians get ready to vote June 7. Boreing calls FOA a “big family affair” but allows that things can get heated. He recently went to a cigar gathering with a Trump contigent. “I was sort of the token Ted Cruz supporter,” he says.
Chetwynd has said that at the start, there was talk that a sign of the group’s success would be that it would grow so large as to no longer be needed. He argues that the decision to wind down its structure is “a sign of our enormous success, not our failure.”
Boreing thinks there is a continuing need for the organization, but less so than before.
“I think Hollywood is a different place because of FOA, in ways that are subtle but profound,” he says. “Conservatives are out there, and I don’t think there is any going back.”
For more for from Variety’s Politics and Hollywood issue, click here.