Call it a tale of two types of towns.
Barack Obama’s appearance in Las Vegas Tuesday night at a Caesar’s Palace fundraiser that brought in $2 million for incumbent Harry Reid saw the President share billing with Bette Midler and Sheryl Crow.
Wednesday night, the leader of the Free World broke bread with the likes of David Geffen, Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg at a sold-out $1,000-a-ticket reception and $25,000-a-plate dinner of over 200 guests the Beverly Hilton. The dinner was expected to raise over $3 million for the Democratic Party.
The company may have been glamorous, but the allures of Sin City and pulling the one-armed bandit for the Senate Majority Leader must seem like a welcoming memory to Obama.
After all, this was the President’s first fundraising appearance in front of the Hollywood community since taking office. And, in a time of an ailing economy, bailouts and mergers, Hollywood — which has been a constant source of public and financial support for Obama and the Democrats — must have been looking at the head table and asking the Celebrity-in-Chief, to quote that old Janet Jackson song, “What have you done for me lately?”
While aware of the criticism, it is not a question John Emerson, who along with Spielberg, Katzenberg and Geffen — the latter an early Obama supporter when most of the town was lining up behind Hillary for the Democratic nomination — is one of the organizers of the fundraiser, gives much credence to. Even though he is acutely aware of the blowback both his former boss, 2004 nominee John Kerry, and other Democrats have got for being seen as too close to Hollywood.
“I think that for promoting a message, whether in a campaign context or sometimes in a governing context, it may be appropriate to have Hollywood closely involved,” said the former assistant to Bill Clinton, Music Center CEO and Capital Guardian Trust VP who has become both a local fixture and a fixer for Democratic Party politics here in L.A. “Right now, the focus of the administration is on trying to solve the problems that we’re facing.”
Most noticeably, the President has been accused of snubbing the entertainment industry that did so much to help him get elected in 2008 on his first post-inaugural visit to L.A. in March. In town for two days mid-month Obama’s only public brush with Hollywood, besides sharing the stage at an event with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was an appearance on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” on March 13.
The first late-night TV visit by a sitting President was overshadowed, as was much of the policy heavy trip, by an ill conceived aside from Obama about his abilities on the basketball court and the Special Olympics.
It’s certainly not like back in the Clinton days when Barbra Streisand, Spielberg and Geffen, among others, all dropped big contribution bucks to sleep over in the White House and grunge rockers like Soul Asylum got a picture in the Oval Office with the President.
It’s not like the Reagan years when Frank Sinatra, the then-President’s former agent Lew Wasserman, Charlton Heston and Jimmy Stewart all dropped by to see their old friends Ron and Nancy.
Sure, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel — who TV’s “The West Wing’s” character of Josh Lyman was partially based on — is the brother of Ari Emanuel, founder of the Endeavor Agency and the basis for the profane Ari Gold on HBO’s “Entourage.” But not many Hollywood outsiders are aware of the connection – this administration doesn’t seem to like being associated with Hollywood people, at least not publicly.
Despite the widespread use of stars and celebrities during the campaign and D.C. turning into Hollywood East during both the inauguration and the recent White House Correspondent’s Dinner, the President’s visit to L.A. Wednesday was the most face time some of his most famous supporters have had since Obama took office.
Since January, the Hollywood elite have regularly been trekking up the Executive Mansion driveway. Former 007 Pierce Brosan visited the White House recently to discuss the environment, and Jessica Alba got a tour of the West Wing while in town for the Correspondent’s Dinner — but almost no one has met with the President.
Well, maybe George Clooney — but only very, very briefly. Pushing his argument for direct involvement in Darfur, got a private meeting with Vice President Joe Biden and a handshake with the President himself. But there was no photo op with POTUS.
Those types of public display of power and influence for Hollywood in Washington isn’t realistic with all that’s on the President’s plate and agenda, said Emerson. “What are you going to do, have celebrities go out and talk about economy or foreign policy?” he rhetorically asked.
“It just doesn’t make sense, you just wouldn’t naturally think of bringing people in on that. It’s not a negative thing about Hollywood, or people who were supporters being suddenly cut off. I think it is about the guy focusing on governing.”
Ironically, while Hollywood loves a leading man, the real relationship with the nation’s capitol might actually be more of an ensemble piece. It may turn out that Hollywood’s real power play is not walking the corridors of the White House … but with the halls of Capitol Hill.
In recent months, celebrities like Patrick Swayze, who wrote in the Washington Post about his own cancer in an effort to have Representatives increase funding for the National Institutes of Health, and Brad Pitt, who had the red carpet laid out for him by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in early March when he came to discuss ongoing hurricane relief efforts in Louisiana, have brought their causes and case to Congress to great public effect.
The exuberant House Speaker called the “Benjamin Button” star "a real hero for the people of New Orleans and a real model for the country.”
For public people, it is a perfect public forum with direct access to the players who actually make the laws and legislation.
“I don’t think there has been a shift, but I think that you don’t come and testify before 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., you testify before Congress,” said Emerson. “That’s where the cameras are, that’s where you can bring attention to use your celebrity to bring public awareness to the issues you are talking about. That happens on the Hill, that doesn’t happen in the White House. “
Fundraiser and face time aside, it looks like for a Hollywood rolling the dice on influence or face time in the Obama era, what happens in the White House stays in the White House.