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COVER STORY

Is There a Chill in the Air?

The Democrats' obsession with fund-raising pushed the Hollywood Women's Political Committee over the edge. What does its demise say about the entertainment industry's relationship with politics?

June 22, 1997|Robert W. Welkos | Robert W. Welkos is a Times staff writer

In October 1994, the Hollywood Women's Political Committee threw a fund-raiser in Beverly Hills with First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, attended by Barbra Streisand, Whoopi Goldberg and more than 1,000 other figures drawn from the entertainment industry.

The luncheon was considered a rousing success at the time, raising $250,000, which the committee then distributed to liberal abortion-rights candidates across the country.

But less than two weeks later, as they watched the election returns, the women spearheading Hollywood's best-known and most influential political action committee watched what they deemed a political disaster unfold before their eyes.

From coast to coast, liberals were toppling like bowling pins as the Republican revolution led by Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and his "contract with America" overturned decades of Democratic Party rule in the House of Representatives.

"We freaked out and went into depression," recalled the committee's then-executive director, Lara Bergthold. "We rushed to get the money out and 12 days later we sat in front of the television and watched [New York Gov.] Mario Cuomo and [Texas Gov.] Ann Richards and all these people tank. The capper of the evening was watching [California Republican Rep.] Sonny Bono win."

Two years later, this disenchantment deepened after President Clinton signed the welfare reform bill. Some committee members didn't show up for a gala fund-raiser featuring Clinton that the committee co-hosted at Green Acres, the old Harold Lloyd estate in Beverly Hills.

Today, the Hollywood Women's Political Committee is no more. After years of soul-searching and intense debate over the growing influence of money in politics, the 275-member group decided it wouldn't play the money-chasing game anymore. The doors close at the end of this month.

"We will no longer collaborate with a system that promotes the buying and selling of political candidates," the members said in a statement that stunned the political world.

*

The demise of the Hollywood Women's Political Committee provides a case study not only of the disenchantment felt about the growing influence of money in politics, but the frustration certain liberals feel when they see politicians enter into compromises on key issues. Well-known liberals in movies, television and music say they are pulling back from party politics, transferring their energies to issue politics, or simply rethinking which candidates they will support.

Actor-director Warren Beatty, who for years was one of Hollywood's major political voices on the left, virtually disappeared from the 1996 elections, causing people to wonder if he had dropped out of politics.

"You don't drop out of politics--you can't drop out of politics--but you can become less active or more active in certain forms of politics," Beatty said. "Politics is not a sport. Winning isn't everything. Leading is. I have no interest in a Democratic Party that seeks to become a liberal Republican Party just to win."

Beatty believes politicians should lead, not follow, explaining: "The success of people's careers in politics by winning elections doesn't interest me very much, but people who make good ideas clear, do."

Danny Goldberg, president of Mercury Records and a longtime liberal Democratic activist, said the "moneyed compromising" that goes hand-in-hand with politics today has caused a "real melancholy" to settle over liberals like himself.

"Just signing onto the Clinton-Gore agenda is sort of in conflict with my beliefs," Goldberg said. "I think people are going to want to be a little more focused on the people they actually believe in as opposed to going through the tortured logic of [supporting] the lesser of two evils."

Margery Tabankin, a political and philanthropic advisor to Barbra Streisand and Steven Spielberg, said the heavy emphasis on money during the 1996 election left people in show business feeling "depleted." As a result, she said: "I think you are seeing less campaign interest, less electoral interest, but you still have a lot of issue-driven political activism."

"I think anybody trying to raise money right now is going to have a tough time," HWPC member Adena Smith put it bluntly. "People are burned out. The enormous requests for money were more than I've ever seen."

Hilary Rosen, president of the Recording Industry Assn. of America, said she thinks recording artists have simply turned off of party politics. "Many recording artists are drawn to issues today as opposed to politics," Rosen said. "I think people are discouraged because they perceive politics as a zero-sum game."

Even the biggest contributors aren't immune.

David Geffen, for instance, has not yet decided how involved he will be in the next election. Geffen, the billionaire co-founder of DreamWorks SKG, now shares the stage in terms of political clout with Lew Wasserman, the legendary former chief of MCA Inc.

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