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THE NATION : POLITICS : Movies as a Moral Issue Doesn't Have Any Legs

June 18, 1995|Kevin Phillips | Kevin Phillips is editor-publisher of the American Political Report. He is the author of "The Politics of Rich and Poor" and his most recent book is "Arrogant Capital: Washington, Wall Street and the Frustration of American Politics" (Little Brown)

WASHINGTON — Don't look for criticism of movies and for those who make them to become the political linchpin of the 1996 presidential campaign. October's great debates will not be over whether we should have seen less of Sharon Stone or "The Terminator." It's not even clear that the broader concept of values can make it into the top slot. Probably not.

This isn't because a painful recession could reignite the economic issue--although that's true. And it's not because Hollywood has bought, rented and entertained so many national politicians--which is also true.

Rather, it is the role of religion--the all-important backdrop to values--that is already a central divide of U.S. politics and a certain double-bladed issue for 1996. The additional problem with the movies-are-bad-for-us focus is that both parties--the one that attacks Hollywood as well as the one that dances attendance--have too many people with too little sincerity for this moral outrage to gain any new partisan traction.

Let's stipulate: The strength of the Republican charge that Hollywood's skin, sadism and slaughter flicks are an ingredient, rather than a reflection, of the nation's moral erosion is that it's almost certainly true. However, the earlier response of church-going Americans to this, as well as to other symptoms of moral decay, has already caused them to rally disproportionately behind the GOP in the last 25 years. Their strong influence in the GOP creates an additional strategic weakness if the hypocrisy gets a Bible Belt spotlight.

For example: Top Republican leaders sell steamy novels to Hollywood and finance soft-core porn films, GOP Presidents campaign with Republican movie stars who sell big-screen violence, while conservative lawmakers who rage at celluloid pollution have no problem with the industrial variety. And precious few conservative honchos attack Wall Street hotshots who violate drug laws about as often as they do SEC regulations. The potential for backlash is great.

Democrats, if anything, are worse off. So many are philosophic and fund-raising captives of the free-flowing campaign money and cultural permissiveness of the movie, broadcasting, music and communications industries that they can't attack obvious national frustrations. Meanwhile, not a few liberal politicos go against the grain of Middle America in supporting extremes of global victim-worship, anything-goes artistic and sexual self-expression, cynicism about religion and chic preference for saving spotted owls over the jobs of loggers. But the Democrats are partly protected, because the GOP's hypocrisy keeps top Republicans from being taken seriously even when they are making accurate criticism.

Yet, the entertainment mega-business is a valid focus--both because of its moral and cultural impact and because of the hypocrisy and symbiotic relationship of so many politicians. It turns out one of Washington's leading cultural philosophers, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) has written a steamy novel with lurid White House sex scenes that his agent wants to sell to Hollywood for $1 million.

Maybe he should team up with Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, a GOP presidential hopeful. About 20 years ago, Gramm put up $7,500 to finance a girlie movie (he thought) and wound up backing a film showing Richard M. Nixon in bed with his Irish setter, King Timahoe. If Gingrich and Gramm fail in Washington, they could always team up on the adult-theater circuit. They could collaborate on some hot titles: "Girls of the National Rifle Assn." or "Montana Militia Weekend."

If this seems like some sort of absurd caricature, a less controversial GOP vulnerability would be George Bush's practice of deploring the erosion of family values while campaigning, in 1992, with such blow-em up biggies as Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Willis, in this case, had just starred in "Die Hard 2," a movie with a body count of 264, and Schwarzenegger had gunned down 17 policemen in "The Terminator" and bellowed, "Consider this a divorce!" just before he shot his wife in "Total Recall."

Before his recent attack on Hollywood, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, the GOP front-runner, had never been heard from on this issue. That helps explain why polls showed that, though 70% agreed with him, 57% thought Dole's speech was just politics. His overall favorability ratings, moreover, slipped into the low 40s.

In fact, Hollywood is just a microcosm of the larger U.S. politics of pseudo-morality. Big Hollywood names who get paid for guns and guts (Clint Eastwood, Charlton Heston, Tom Selleck) or mass-killing films (Willis, Schwarzenegger) are likely to be conservatives and Republicans. People who play drug dealers, sex symbols and campus revolutionaries are more likely to be Democrats.

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