Pollywood: A brief history of celebrities and their causes on Capitol Hill
By Roland Flamini
Lady Gaga mans the phone bank for the BGC Charity Day in 2009.
“Quick, what cause was Hayden Panettiere pushing on Capitol Hill recently?”
“Panettiere …You mean the famous pastry chef?”
“No, no, Hayden Panettiere from the TV show ‘Heroes.’ She’s a spokesperson for the Save the Whales campaign.”
“She’s from Wales? Panettiere sounds – like – French.”
Hayden Panettiere in Dupont Circle encouraging increased whale protection, January 2008.
You hear quite a few exchanges like that on Capitol Hill these days as a galaxy of show business celebrities – some better known than others – drop in to raise awareness on a range of campaigns and issues. Some need no explanation. When global star Brad Pitt went to the Hill to promote his “Make It Right” project to rebuild New Orleans – wearing dark wraparounds and practically groping his way along the corridors – the Associated Press reported, “he drained congressional offices of their female employees.” Facing the media hordes with Pitt, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi flushed with the same pleasure she would have felt if the Democrats increased their majority. But the most surreal pair by far was bemused Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid alongside Lady Gaga, as the phantasmagoric performer campaigned in support of gays in the military.
And so it goes. George Clooney caused a major stir when he reported on his recent trip to Darfur. Lisa Edelstein of “House” (but in Washington perhaps better remembered as the call-girl in “The West Wing”) drew attention to the plight of youngsters in the developing world for Save the Children. Ashley Judd lectured the federal government for allowing mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia. Then Steven Colbert appeared before a congressional committee on immigration, displeasing some of its members with his irreverent performance. You just know that there had to be a college thesis on the subject. There is, and it reveals that between 1973 and 1999 a total of 524 celebrities appeared as witnesses or delivered statements on the Hill – a rate of roughly 21 annually. But this year so far, according to congressional sources, there were around 50 celebrity sightings in the committee rooms and the corridors of power. In an age of celebrity worship these visits can only increase.
Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Jackson raise funds for AIDS research at Taylor’s 65th birthday in 1997
The conventional wisdom is that the presence of a celebrity gives a particular issue a flash of visibility in the highly competitive congressional environment. The long-term impact of such appearances has yet to be determined; somebody will eventually do another study on it, and the answer may well be “not much.” Still, schlepping to Washington pays dividends for the celebrities – who get to show they have a serious side, which in many cases is true. For some the cause is a cry from the heart: Michael J. Fox, for example, is the spokesman for Parkinson’s Disease and suffers from it. Mary Tyler Moore, is a regular on the Hill to talk about her diabetes.
Kevin Costner is known to enliven somber hearings about oil spills.
It does no harm for politicians to bask, however briefly, in a movie star’s limelight either; it gets their pictures in the newspapers back home, and shows they are plugged in to popular taste. And for the media, Kevin Costner (oil spills) coming to Pollywood is a useful visual tool for livening up a key news area that normally comes across as gray and somber. Elizabeth Taylor was an early pioneer of campaigning on the Hill to promote AIDS awareness in its early days, shortly after her friend Rock Hudson died of the disease. Bono, the U2 lead singer turned global activist, is a regular visitor to raise concern for world hunger and other mega-issues.
But celebrity can be a catch-all term that all too often has more to do with the frequency of coverage in People Magazine than actual performing talent. Although, come to think of it, it takes a certain kind of talent to sustain public interest year after year by doing nothing at all except wearing skimpy clothes and getting photographed at parties.
To get back to the main point: how many of the stars who traipse to the Hill nowadays know that 60 years ago it was a frightening place for Hollywood actors, directors, writers and composers? When Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Becall, Dolores del Rio, Garson Kanin, Edward G. Robinson and Dashiell Hammett went to Congress it was not to defend endangered whales or battered children, but to defend themselves before Joe McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee against the charge of being communists, or to testify in defense of accused friends.
Brad Pitt addressing the Clinton Global Initiative on the damage to New Orleans caused by Hurricane Katrina.
Between 1947 and the mid-1950s, HUAC trundled like a runaway Juggernaut through Hollywood, trampling movie careers in its path. A self-righteous Congress found redemption in persecuting the famous – and not being too fastidious about the unintended consequences, the innocent victims suffering from guilt by association. Scores of actors and writers either served jail sentences or were punished in some other way. The studio-dominated film industry succumbed to the witch hunt mentality and blacklisted several hundred of Hollywood’s best talents, some of them on the slimmest of evidence of involvement with communism; many were shut out of the industry for years.
What motivated the McCarthy gang was the fear that communists and their fellow travelers had gained control of a powerful mind industry: the movies. In his own way Michael J. Fox is also harnessing that same power. “What celebrity has given me is the opportunity to raise the visibility of Parkinson’s disease, and focus attention on the desperate need for more research dollars,” he told the Senate committee.
George Clooney with volunteers visiting South Darfur to draw attention to the humanitarian crisis on October 6, 2009
George Clooney, the son of an area journalist, reasoned the same way. “The cameras follow me wherever I go, so they might as well follow me to Darfur so I can show what’s happening there.” Until now, the cameras have followed Clooney to Somalia on three separate occasions; he thinks a factional bloodbath is imminent unless the international community takes urgent action. What action, he doesn’t know. “I’m an actor, not a diplomat and what’s needed is diplomacy,” he declared with an expressive shrug.
So maybe with their presence the do-gooders – the Clooneys and Pitts – are exorcising the ghosts of an earlier generation of creative talent that haunts the halls from uglier times. Here’s to you Dalton Trumbo! Rest in peace Edward G. Robinson!