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Hollywood and Democrats: an Embrace That Only Looks Glamorous

March 22, 1987|ANDREW KOPKIND | Andrew Kopkind is an associate editor of the Nation, from which this article is adapted.

Fund-raising has obviously replaced vote-getting, constituency-serving and legislating as the principal activity of politicians. The liberals especially all ride the circuit around L.A. because this is where the money is. "Our biggest cash crop," a young Gary Hart operative told me, "is cash."

The ranking overseer of the Westside circuit is Stanley Sheinbaum, like Norman Lear a founder and survivor of the Malibu Mafia (which is not Italian nor lives in that beach community, but the alliterative name sticks). In its heyday in the early 1970s, the Malibu Mafia promoted a variety of progressive candidates and causes around the country. But history, middle age, community property and federal campaign reform legislation have taken their toll, and the godfathers and their families are scattered or retired.

Sheinbaum, though, is still a powerful arbiter of political styles in this part of the country. He has earned a reputation as a man who can make things happen.

What he made happen, or at least made possible, last month in Los Angeles was an amusing event of historic proportions: the one-week rise and fall of Mario Cuomo's national campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

All during the fall, Cuomo had been looking for a good excuse and an appropriate vehicle to play the liberal L.A. circuit: something worthy in its own right, not too "political," noncontroversial. The Center for Law in the Public Interest banquet at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion seemed just fine. At the last minute, he accepted Sheinbaum's invitation.

Cuomo was trying to make a myth, to create a role for himself as a savior of his party, a man of principle rather than ambition, of intellect rather than opportunism. Cuomo was not simply traipsing across the country to raise money for law firms he'd never heard of and celebrate the retirement of dignitaries he'd never met. The governor's shadowy "people" in New York let it out that the excursion to L.A. was the first of four this year to "test the waters" for a presidential campaign.

In the face of all the excitement about Cuomo's candidacy, the non-candidate was adamant, even arrogant, about his intentions. He swept into the pavilion trailing a cloud of reporters, camera operators and news readers from New York and other points east. He was alternately coy and brusque in discussing his political purposes, and sometimes curiously opaque. Tom Hayden, who knows a lot about self-creation, had the best line for Cuomo: "He's very Zen. He runs by not running. In fact, he creates demand by reducing supply. It's Zen Machiavelianism."

Later, at the pre-dinner reception for big contributors and cloutish Democrats, Cuomo nastily contradicted Sheinbaum's generous introduction of him as "the most exciting political figure" in the land. "I am not here as a politician," Cuomo scolded his host, to low gasps from the crowd.

But the big bomb was reserved for the postprandial address to an audience that represented a sizable chunk of Democratic energy, activism and enthusiasm in Southern California. Cuomo could have had the group if he wanted it. Hart has his large base here, and Joe Biden seems to have found a niche, but only Cuomo might command the throng the way a Ted Kennedy could. But something was terribly, terribly wrong. After a few nimble wisecracks about the "Italian thing," Cuomo seemed to drift off into a lazy, empty soliloquy. The cliche was the message.

The worst part was the long, cadenced peroration, which Cuomo took word for word from his second inaugural address, given two months earlier in Albany. Setting the scene with a nostalgic reminiscence of the Statue of Liberty, Cuomo apostrophized, "Lift your lamp, Lady!" for the lonely and friendless, the brothers and sisters, the farm families and factory workers, even the privileged--you name it, he gave it a lift of the lamp. My table companion, a woman I had slogged through the 1960s with and hadn't seen in 15 years, couldn't bear to look at the speaker. "This is so embarrassing," she said, shaking her head and staring at her toes. "I'm so depressed."

Cuomo had rejected the advice of those who knew the L.A. circuit that he give a "substantive" speech, one that would not only place him in a political context but also give his audience something to work for in the months ahead.

The perfunctory applause at the end of the speech had hardly died when Cuomo's candidacy, such as it ever was, was suddenly dead. "Live by the speech, die by the speech," a man across the table said cruelly. "I thought the speech was patronizing," someone else said. "The reaction at my table . . . was 'Ronald Reagan could have given that speech.' "

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