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Striving to Smooth the Ties Between Strange Bedfellows

Arts: An entertainment industry coalition is bringing together celebrities and political glitterati to debate during this year's confabs.


NEW YORK — Actor William Baldwin confessed that he'd have a couple of sleepless nights before it was all over.

"Is anybody going to cancel?" he asked worriedly. "Is anybody going to show up late? Will there be transportation to get everybody back and forth? It's a nightmare."

A new film? A stage debut? No, what's making Baldwin nervous is his leading role in a series of political forums organized by the Creative Coalition, a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy group whose members are drawn from the entertainment community. As the head of the coalition's conventions committee, Baldwin is organizing the panels to be presented during the Republican National Convention on Tuesday and Wednesday at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, and during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago on Aug. 27 and 28. The public is invited, and organizers also are expecting C-SPAN coverage of some of the proceedings.

"Money and Politics: Are Dollars Buying Democracy?" will be the topic under discussion in both cities; "Abortion: The Republican Perspective" will also be on the agenda at the Old Globe, while at Chicago's Goodman Theatre panelists will tackle censorship issues surrounding the question: "What Is the Entertainment Industry's Responsibility to Not Offend Its Audience?"

Participants range across the political spectrum, with anti-abortion presidential candidate Alan Keyes and William Weld--the governor of Massachusetts and a senatorial candidate who favors abortion rights--among those debating abortion. Rapper Chuck D. and television producer Steven Bochco will be among those participating in the Hollywood censorship debate. Ann Richards, former governor of Texas, Sens. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and political guru James Carville also are scheduled to participate.

At an interview in a Manhattan restaurant near his apartment, Baldwin savored the prospect of hooking in channel-surfers and concerned citizens alike with the discussions. "If celebrity is the lightning rod that brings it all together, then I think it's an effective utilization of that celebrity status," he said.

The uneasy alliance of celebrities and politics, of course, has often been a target of derision--and sometimes with good reason. In fact, Baldwin says it was the damage done through what he calls the "recklessness and irresponsibility" of ill-informed celebrities during the 1988 presidential campaign that led actor Ron Silver to found the coalition a year later. The New York-based organization now boasts 250 members, including actors (Susan Sarandon, Robin Williams), producers (Gerald Schoenfeld, Harvey Weinstein), executives (former HBO chief Michael Fuchs) and agents (Johnnie Planco).

With a mandate to educate its members and the public, the coalition also acts as an advocacy group. A tax-exempt organization, it cannot support candidates but can and does lobby government on specific legislation, such as that regarding arts funding, gun control and health care. Christopher Reeve, whose first public appearance after his riding accident last year was at a coalition fund-raiser honoring Williams, recently made a series of public service announcements protesting cuts in Medicaid. The organization also uses outreach programs, such as the forums, to influence policymakers, particularly those who are conservative and not likely to be sympathetic to a group carved from an industry traditionally known for Democratic activism.

"It's a left-liberal organization," said David Horowitz, president of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, a Los Angeles-based conservative think tank that will participate in the campaign reform finance panel in San Diego. "But I applaud the [coalition] for being inclusionists and supporting a balanced dialogue. Conservatives are so rarely invited to the table in Hollywood that I'm happy to participate."

Baldwin said that fair-minded debates are likelier to reach a much wider audience than one-sided pitches and also will help establish credibility with politicians the group needs to advance its agenda. "Quite frankly, [the coalition] already has access to Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Dick Gephardt," he said. "What we want is access to the Alan Simpsons and Orrin Hatches in Congress. The more bipartisanship we can demonstrate, the likelier it is that they'll listen to us."

Horowitz chided the group for engaging in "mischief-making" by raising the charged issue of reproductive rights in San Diego at a time when the Republicans are eager to not roil waters. But actor Alec Baldwin, president of the organization and William Baldwin's brother, responded that the forums are not designed to embarrass anybody. He said they are the organization's bid "to hold both parties' feet to the fire" on pressing issues.

"The Republicans have been schizophrenic on abortion and the Democrats have become very cozy with the entertainment industry, taking its money but then accusing Hollywood of polluting minds," he says. "We wanted them to talk about the moral obligations which cultural leaders have to their constituencies, especially for dragging their feet on reforming the campaign laws in this country--something they've repeatedly promised. These people are junkies for this money and, like all junkies, they may hate the dealer but they're dependent on him."

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