For many celebrities, the election of Barack Obama represents their best chance to influence policy after eight years in the cold, and they’re not waiting for his permission to seek change.
After all, their money and campaign support helped move him into the White House. So few would be surprised to see celebrities starting to demand results, even as the president finds his agenda overtaken by the nation’s overwhelming economic problems.
Like few other issues roiling the world these days, the enduring tragedy in the Darfur region of Sudan has engaged Hollywood types in growing numbers.
A red carpet full of celebrities are urging a faster and stronger international response — George Clooney, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Steven Spielberg, Don Cheadle and Ryan Gosling among them.
Just last week, TV and film actress Maria Bello joined a half-dozen House members at the Capitol, calling on U.S. and world leaders to press Sudan’s president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, to rescind his order expelling 13 international humanitarian organizations from the region.
One stroke of gentle persuasion came last month from Clooney as he met with President Obama and Vice President Biden to discuss the conflict in Darfur. He brought along a digital version of 250,000 signatures collected on postcards, demanding an end to the violence.
After the meeting, Clooney lingered a while longer in Washington to appear on CNN’s “Larry King Live." Conceding that Obama and Biden have “a lot of things to do” with Iraq, Afghanistan and a free-falling economy, Clooney told King, “My job is to remind this Administration that this is one of them, and it’s very important.”
There are some indications that Clooney may have had some impact.
In his meeting, Clooney said he urged Obama to raise the level of diplomacy. Days later, administration officials confirmed that a retired Air Force pilot, Major General J. Scott Gration, who grew up in Africa, would be named a special envoy to Darfur, a role parallel to Richard Holbrooke’s in Pakistan and Afghanistan and George Mitchell’s in the Middle East. The appointment was made official last week.
It’s hard to know whether anything Clooney said or the petition signatures played a role in leading to the appointment. He was not available for comment, said his press representative, Stan Rosenfield.
“With celebrities, you get into People magazine and other sections of the newspaper and that gives you access to a much wider audience,” said Alex Meixner, director of policy and government relations for the Save Darfur coalition in Washington. “It’s tough to find metrics you can look at to quantify a celebrity’s impact.”
But it seemed apparent that Clooney’s involvement in the issue, including six trips to the region, has helped raise public awareness of Darfur beyond what it might have been, if left only to the rare journalists, like Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, who have chronicled the bloodshed for years.
Others have been engaged since well before Obama’s election.
Last April in London, Damon led a group of other celebrities, including actresses Joely Richardson and Jemima Khan, in a global Day of Darfur protests, breaking toys and setting fire to children’s pictures as a way to symbolize the suffering of young people.
Six months before the Beijing Olympics last year, Spielberg withdrew as an artistic adviser for the opening and closing ceremonies, saying he could not work on the project until China, an arms vendor to Sudan, did more to alleviate the suffering.
Cheadle played a role in his own 2007 documentary, “Darfur Now," which followed the activities of six people trying to end the violence. "I do think that it’s unfortunate that it does take quote unquote celebrity to bring attention to this," he said when the documentary was released. "This is the 21st century’s first genocide, and it’s happening right now and that’s not enough to lead off [the newscasts]?
Tim Irwin, a spokesman in Washington for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said Angelina Jolie has been especially dedicated and effective, calling attention to the consequences of all Darfur-like genocide, millions of people seeking food and shelter far from their home countries.
She was in Thailand two months ago, raising awareness of refugees spilling over from Myanmar, “and got huge press,” Irwin said. Affleck has been equally visible on events in Congo, whose war with Rwanda has led to millions of deaths over the last decade.
“Their unique positions give celebrities a platform to be heard, listened to an photographed, certainly more than the average UNHRC worker,’’ Irwin said. “That informs people that the situation is on-going and there are things they can do to help.”
Tzivia Schwartz Getzug, executive director of Jewish World Watch, an L.A.-based coalition of synagogues that focuses on Darfur and now Congo, said sustained efforts by celebrities like Clooney and Cheadle prove invaluable because they have embraced the issue, rather than use it for their own aggrandizement.
“These are people who are incredibly committed,” she said. “They’ve visited refugee camps, held events, appeared before Congress.”
“On the other hand,” she added, “on just about any day of the week, there’s a dinner in New York or Los Angeles for a wonderful organization, and a celebrity comes out, but it might be just a one-off for them. Then it becomes a negative. When it looks like the cause is just the flavor of the week for them, there isn’t much sustained interest.”