Mr. Smith Goes To Hollywood


By Ronald Brownstein

Pantheon -- 437pp -- $24.95

It has become as much a campaign rite as a slog through the New Hampshire snow. For both Republicans and Democrats, the road to Washington increasingly passes through Hollywood. The path was first broken in the 1920s, when the film industry was in its infancy. Since then, Los Angeles Times reporter Ronald Brownstein writes in The Power and The Glitter, the rising cost of seeking office has made a stop in Tinseltown ever more important.

Hollywood's flirtation with national politics began, Brownstein tells us, when mogul Louis B. Mayer asked then-Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover to provide letters of introduction that would facilitate Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's European film projects. Subsequently, Mayer agreed to finance the films of actress Marion Davies, the paramour of press magnate William Randolph Hearst. After that, it took but a nudge for Mayer to persuade Hearst to have his papers support Hoover's 1928 Presidential bid.

To Mayer and other Jewish immigrants who dominated early Hollywood, exercising political power meant elbowing their way into the mainstream of a society that denied them membership in its country clubs and rooms in its best hotels. Today, the politicians are the aggressors, pursuing the money the movie community can provide. In 1986, the Hollywood Women's Political Committee raised $1.5 million for Democratic senatorial candidates during one dinner at Barbra Streisand's home. Stars including Jack Nicholson and Bette Midler turned out to hear Streisand sing and take jabs at Ronald Reagan.

The first President to enlist the help of numerous stars and studio chiefs was Franklin D. Roosevelt. For a time, Roosevelt had aspired to write films; while serving as Assistant Navy Secretary, he had tried to interest several studios in his treatment of the life of Navy hero John Paul Jones. Although he failed at that, Hollywood heavyweights became part of all his Presidential bids. Studio owners Jack and Harry Warner organized a giant rally for him, actors such as Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson made radio pitches, and singer Frank Sinatra staged concerts.

Stars soon became a feature of any campaign. Thomas E. Dewey lined up Ginger Rogers, Gary Cooper, and Barbara Stanwyck for radio appeals. Lauren Bacall campaigned tirelessly for Adlai E. Stevenson. Young and dashing Senator John F. Kennedy--the kind of politician moviemakers could relate to--made the Hollywood-Washington connection social, hanging out at the Sands Hotel with Rat Packers Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. and even having Hollywood agent Charlie Feldman get him dates with starlets.

With the advent of television advertising in the 1960s, politicians became less enamored of Hollywood's stars than of its money. United Artists Chairman Arthur B. Krim and MCA Chairman Lew R. Wasserman funneled millions each year to Democratic candidates. Krim headed a group formed to raise $12 million for Lyndon B. Johnson's 1968 reelection bid; Brownstein shows Krim pleading with LBJ in his White House bedroom, unsuccessfully trying to change the President's mind moments before he pulled out of the race.

The Power and the Glitter overflows with such tidbits, including California's Alan Cranston talking Orson Welles out of running for the U. S. Senate. During the three years he spent researching the book, Brownstein combed through the papers of most of Hollywood's legendary power brokers. He gives his story additional authenticity by telling much of it through the words of the participants, including Shirley MacLaine, Jane Fonda, Paul Newman, and Susan Sarandon. The result is a name-dropper's delight, rich in anecdotes and fun to read.

Brownstein isn't as strong on analysis. He doesn't satisfactorily explain, for example, why, as most of America drifted toward Republicanism in the 1970s, Hollywood remained predominantly Democratic. And while he makes it clear what Washington gets from Hollywood, he never clarifies what Hollywood expects in return. Indeed, soon after FDR came to power, his Justice Dept. began antitrust actions that eventually took theaters away from the studios, many of whose heads had supported him.

Hollywood didn't always come away empty-handed. Not long after Reagan's 1980 election as President, Wasserman, his former agent and a major campaign contributor, successfully lobbied him to reject changes in federal regulations that would have allowed the television networks to make TV shows, muscling in on the movie studios' near-monopoly. Still, on the whole, the relationship between Hollywood and Washington seems largely one-sided. (And despite the studios' political influence, the networks may yet get to make shows.)

A onetime associate of Ralph Nader, Brownstein at times seems mesmerized by Hollywood's liberals. He devotes huge amounts of space to Robert Redford, who got hooked on politics after he helped win a local battle to stop construction of a Utah highway. He also goes on at length about Warren Beatty, a member of the inner circles of both George S. McGovern and Gary Hart. But he never fully examines how the influence of Beatty, "Hollywood's most renowned Casanova," contributed to Hart's downfall.

These are only minor bumps along the road that Brownstein has us follow from the nation's political capital to its film capital, however. His account of the ties between these powerful cities is well-written and even better researched. And as the question of who shall hold political office increasingly comes down to who has the most money to spend, the road Brownstein describes no doubt will become even more heavily traveled.