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Battle Brews Between Violence Foes

Politics: William Bennett, who fought Hollywood with Sen. Lieberman, criticizes his friend for 'trimming' his views. Democratic candidate calls accusations partisan.


CLEVELAND — A long-standing bipartisan alliance against Hollywood violence fractured Wednesday when former Education Secretary William J. Bennett accused Democratic vice presidential nominee Joseph I. Lieberman of softening his criticism of the entertainment industry in order to curry favor with its deep-pocketed leaders.

In a strongly worded statement and in an interview with The Times, Republican Bennett said he was responding to a series of moves by Lieberman, most recently comments he made Monday night at a Beverly Hills fund-raiser. At that industry-heavy event, which raised $4.2 million for the Democratic Party, Lieberman said that he did not want to censor Hollywood but instead to "nudge" movies and television in a more acceptable direction.

Bennett said he was angered--and moved to criticize his friend--by what he felt was a wink-and-a-nod familiarity imbuing Lieberman's comments.

"That he's trimming on these views is evident and disappointing," said Bennett, a longtime warrior against Hollywood who has worked with Lieberman for several years. He ascribed Lieberman's motivation to a desire to "follow the leader and to curry the favor of this industry, which gives so much money to the Democratic Party."

Lieberman, in response, suggested that Bennett might have been motivated by a desire to aid the campaign of Bennett's fellow Republican, Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

"He is my friend and he will be my friend," Lieberman told reporters after a rally at Warrensville Heights High School here. "I wonder whether this is a sign of a campaign that is faltering or kind of anxiously trying to figure out how to regain the momentum."

Lieberman noted that he and Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore had excoriated the entertainment industry last week when the Federal Trade Commission released a report blaming Hollywood for marketing inappropriate materials to children.

Gore pledged that unless the entertainment leaders toe the line, he will back legislation giving the FTC power to regulate the industry. Lieberman testified to Congress on the matter, as did Lynne Cheney, wife of Republican vice presidential nominee Dick Cheney.

Lieberman said Wednesday that he repeated his criticism at the fund-raiser.

Bennett and Lieberman teamed up several years ago to combat depictions of sex and violence in movies, television shows and song lyrics. They issued several "Silver Sewer" awards, meant to embarrass the industry into higher standards.

Their alliance was particularly potent given its bipartisan flair, and the duo generated reams of publicity over the years.

While Bennett said that he had been concerned by the Democratic ticket's fund-raising in Hollywood, he seemed perturbed largely by Lieberman's refusal to slay the entertainment lion when he walked into its den Monday night.

"I did not realize that when Joe Lieberman and I were denouncing the filth, sewage and mindless bloodletting of the popular entertainment industry, calling it what it is--degrading and dehumanizing--we were just being 'nudges,' " Bennett said in his written statement.

"Sen. Lieberman and I were doing more than 'nudging' the entertainment industry; we were trying to shame them," he added.

Bennett also said he was aghast at Gore and Lieberman's apparent acceptance of a joke told at the Monday fund-raiser by Larry David, who was executive producer of "Seinfeld." David, according to reporters present, said, " . . . And like Bush, I too found Christ in my 40s. He came into my room one night. And I said, 'What, no call? You just pop in?' "

The former Education secretary and author of "The Book of Virtues," a 1993 compendium of moral tales, Bennett said in the interview that the joke was "blatant Christian bashing of the sort done by people who think they are sophisticated." Gore and Lieberman should have left in protest, he said.

The vice presidential nominee agreed that the joke was "in bad taste."

"I winced when I heard it," he said. "And on the other hand, that's freedom of expression."

Whether the dispute has a lasting effect is yet to be seen, but it did serve to obscure Lieberman's effort Wednesday to tout the Democratic plans for health care, a topic that surveys show ranks high in voters' minds. He visited a hospital in Columbus before moving on to Cleveland.

Lieberman was greeted with the findings from a new Ohio poll by the University of Cincinnati, which showed Bush with a slight four-point edge in the Midwestern state. While good news for Bush--Gore has solid leads in other Midwestern states--the margin for Bush has narrowed in recent months.

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