The Clintons and Hollywood: a Tale of Two Babylons


Over the course of two decades, Alexander Cockburn and I wrote dozens of articles on the political corruption of Bill and Hillary Clinton and their cronies in DC and Arkansas. In many ways, those years represented the golden age of political journalism, with a fresh scandal ripening each month. As Hillary cruises toward the Democratic nomination, if not the White House, it’s time to dig into the Clinton Files and resurrect the stories of sleaze, malfeasance and transgression from that feculent decade. — JSC

On September 12, 1996, some 1,500 of Hollywood’s most beautiful people mustered at Greenacres, the old Harold Lloyd estate in Beverly Hills, and listened to Barbra Streisand serenade Bill Clinton. On hand were Tom Hanks, who received a jocular presidential dispensation to play the Clinton role in Mike Nichols’s version of Primary Colors; Clinton groupie and versifier Maya Angelou; New Age diva Shirley MacLaine; diva Sharon Stone; and entire galaxies of starlets.

Gradations of access were marked with a precision worthy of the Almanach de Gotha. A check for $1,000 got a guest past the front gate. A mere $4000 purchased the right to attend the outside concert and listen to Streisand, the Neville Brothers, and the Eagles. A rather more substantial check for $12,500 bought entry to the house itself and a seat at a banquet honoring the president. By the end of the evening, some the guests had ponied up more than $4 million, duly remitted by the hosts of the event–Steven Spielberg and David Geffen–to the Democratic National Committee. As of April of this year, these two had accounted for one-sixth of the cash in the Clinton-Gore campaign coffers for 1996.

The bash at Greenacres was the third Democratic fundraiser organized by Geffen and Spielberg, two of the biggest impresarios in Los Angeles. The first event, back in February, was for a select 20 of Tinseltown’s top new moguls, raising $1.7 million. The second, in March, featured actors and recording stars rather than studio heads and brought in another $1.3 million. Clinton attended all their soirees.

There’s nothing new about the Washington/ Hollywood funding link. Entertainment money has always been a magnet for politicos. But the Clinton White House has been particularly unrelenting in its focus on Hollywood, and the investment of time has been a rewarding one. By July 1, 1996, the entertainment and communications industries had sunk $7 million into the Democratic National Committee in the previous six months, and this is only counting contributions of more than $10,000.

Of the top six largest contributors to the Democratic Party, four are in the entertainment/communications sector. From the top: Seagrams/MCA, Disney, Dreamworks SKG, and MCI. MCA is no stranger to Democratic funding. Jules Stein’s empire, which contains Universal, has seen Lew Wasserman and Sidney Scheinberg collect enormous sums down the years for the Democrats. Seagrams, now joined in corporate matrimony with MCA, has long been a Republican backer. Disney is Hollywood’s biggest corporate contributor to the Democrats. Dreamworks SKG stands for Spielberg (net worth $750 million), Jeffrey Katzenberg (net worth $250 million), and Geffen (net worth $1.3 billion). The other partners in Dreamworks SKG are Bill Gates, who’s battling it out with the Sultan of Brunei for the title of world’s richest human being, and Gate’s Microsoft partner Paul Allen, third or fourth richest human being in America.

Of course Hollywood plays it both ways, though there are some contributors clearly identified with one or other of the parties. Geffen and Katzenberg give only to the Democrats. Spielberg lays off his bets, with $50,000 to Gov. Pete Wilson’s presidential campaign, and is one of the Republican L.A. mayor Richard Riordan’s major funders.

After Vice President Dan Quayle set the terms of political rhetoric in 1996 with his 1992 attack on the family values of Murphy Brown, Clinton got a late and crucial wad of Hollywood money, drummed up by Los Angeles lawyer and subsequent Secretary of Commerce Mickey Kantor, and by Clinton’s fellow Arkansan Mary Steenburgen–with whom the governor dined in Little Rock the night Arkansas reintroduced the death penalty at the level of practice.

Since Dan Quayle’s attack on Tinseltown’s antinomian values, Streisand has given $143,000 to the Democrats, Don Henley $108,000, Dustin Hoffman $97,000, with Paul Newman, Bonnie Raitt, Gail Zappa (Frank’s widow), and jazzman Lionel Hampton all kicking in more than $50,000. Still, the Republicans draw near equivalent amounts, over $6 million since January. Time/Warner leads with $290,000 to the GOP, followed by Ticketmaster, Disney, Tracinda Productions, Sony, and Viacom (Sumner Redstone’s $2-billion-a-year cable and video retail enterprise).

Mickey Kantor was once described by the ageless lobbyist for the entertainment industry Jack Valenti–president of the Motion Picture Association of America–as “a heroic battler for Hollywood,” and this raises the important question: What exactly is this sluice of money buying by way of influence or favors? What is the quid pro quo?

As long ago as 1946, Hollywood was successfully using its lobbying might to enlist the U.S. government in efforts to batter down national quota systems protecting the British, French, and Italian film industries. By the 1950s, this mostly successful campaign was widening, in the effort to finish off international competition and to finance domestic losers with overseas revenues. For its part, Washington heartily applauded, subsidized Hollywood’s overseas marketing campaigns, and urged film’s supportive of the American way.

The most graphic illustration of this lobbying zeal was when President Ronald Reagan broke free of a stultifying speech to the Canadian parliament in Ottawa on the merits of international cooperation to thunder his indignation at Prime Minister Mulroney on the possibility that there might be some form of quota on Hollywood’s exports to Canada. Under the approving gaze of Valenti, Reagan decried this as an appalling notion, contrary to all known democratic principles. A chastened Mulroney said something would be done, and indeed it was. Baffled by the presidential veer into entertainment matters, the international press corps assembled in Ottawa failed to comment on the incident.

Today, the biggest quid for the pro quo of campaign contributions is Hollywood’s desire for the U.S. government to push for implementation of the GATT agreement, and kick down the last barricades to total U.S. domination of global film production and distribution.

Thus far Hollywood’s hopes have not been entirely realized, since the European Economic Community, led by the French, Italians, and Spanish, has maintained some quotas that, according to the ever-vigilant Valenti, “represent an epidemic of European cinema industry anti-Americanism…. All this fervor has one objective–to exile the American film/TV industry from Europe and shrink the reach of American audio-visual material which is hugely popular with citizens of the EC countries.”

The sort of restriction outraging Valenti is the EC stipulation, pressed by the French, that 60 percent of airtime on all TV stations in the Community show products originating in European studios. Valenti rages that “this amounts to a serious threat to the future of American movies and TV programs”.

Another obsession of the Hollywood studios is the subsidy system for moviemaking in EC countries, which amounts to some $700 million a year for the entire Community, or roughly the equivalent of seven Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. This comparatively paltry sum has not prevented Hollywood from making subsidies a major issue in trade negotiations, thus far unsuccessfully.

More recently these trade matters have been outshone by the biggest prize in half a century: telecommunications “reform,” which found its final, unlovely expression in the Telecommunications Act signed by Clinton in February of this year. The stakes were huge: the rules governing phone and cable company mergers, deregulation of cable rates, the ending of restrictions on how many radio stations a company might own in one market, the sale of public frequencies, and the V-chip. Hollywood money flowed lavishly on both sides of the political aisle and when the dust settled, the entertainment industry had achieved a splendid victory.

In the Clinton era there have been some particularly interesting co-productions between the White House and Hollywood, perhaps none more redolent of hypocrisy than the three hours per week of prime-time children’s programming agreed upon by the major networks last July, glowingly touted by Tipper Gore in the party convention in Chicago, even though what is commonly regarded as the sine qua non of any decent children’s TV programming–the absence of commercials–had been effortlessly discarded in yet another “win-win” solution.

From the White House’s point of view the biggest political plus, beyond dollars for the campaign chest, has been the cachet of Hollywood support for the administration’s supposed triumphs in the environmental sector.

In the old days, candidates craved a manly whack on the shoulder from John Wayne or Charlton Heston, or the more sensitive salutation of Gregory Peck or Paul Newman. These hopes still prevail to a certain extent, but nowhere is New Hollywood more potent than in giving a thumb’s up for a party’s or a candidate’s efforts on behalf of the threatened habitat, recycling, endangered species, and the Amazon rain forest. This year the Clinton team has belatedly realized that the enviro vote–particularly from Republican women–is vital, and the Democrats have a huge green edge in the public mind. Thus, endorsements from such supposed enviro stars as Streisand, Robert Redford, Ted Danson, and Bonnie Raitt are regarded as political gold.

Of course, talk of substantive difference between Democrats and Republicans is mostly nonsense. As the Wall Street Journal took pains to point out in a news article on September 9, “both parties are likely to continue a trend begun in the late 1980s, toward more flexible environmental regulation that is less intrusive for businesses than individual.”

But the charade of Clintonian green-ness has not only been very useful to the White House, but it also has helped such major Hollywood enterprises as Dreamworks, whose reputation, like that of the now tarnished Disney operation (following the failed effort to build an entertainment center on Manassas Battlefield in Virginia), depends on public identification of the corporate endeavor with respect for nature, enhancement of the warmer virtues.

This article originally ran in the October 1996 edition of CounterPunch.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink co-written with Joshua Frank. He can be reached at: Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.