In the stately reception room of a Hollywood power couple, Gov. Gray Davis and a phalanx of advisors and experts stood before a crowd of prominent Los Angeles women at the height of the anthrax crisis and gave a command briefing.
The meeting in this improvised war room--equipped with maps, pointers and charts--was hosted by a charity board member whose husband is a respected film producer. In light of the anthrax deaths, she told the gathering, we must learn to protect ourselves, not rely on the government.
Standing before a wall of windows that back-lighted him with luminous midday sun, Davis assured the 20 women that he was moving quickly to toughen airport security, protect bridges, test the water--and he was eager to hear their concerns.
"As you all know, Sept. 11 changed everyone's world," Davis said, as guests sipped white wine, and his wife, Sharon Davis, took a seat. "Education is still my passion, but now my highest priority has to be keeping you safe."
While Bush administration spin master Karl Rove was summoning Hollywood to talk patriotism in a post-9/11 world, a cadre of well-connected Hollywood women have been doing some summoning of their own.
Many Americans are reading books on Islamic fundamentalism and germ warfare. These women are bringing officials and bioterrorism experts into their living rooms and peppering them with the questions, large and small, that have haunted Americans since the terrorist attacks.
They call themselves the Industry Task Force for Emergency Response and Preparedness. In a Hollywood-driven city, does anyone need to ask which industry?
Their milieu is accustomed to access: Mexican President Vicente Fox laid out the challenges of the drug war last year. Israeli President Moshe Katsav was the guest of honor at an at-home dinner for 100 people last June held to--as one host put it--"introduce him to the community." Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton were regulars during their political campaigns.
The women invited by the task force have clout. Philanthropist Cheryl Saban and her husband, television deal-maker and top Democratic Party contributor Haim Saban, knew their way around the Clinton White House. An actress who hosted a meeting with Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) is married to one of Hollywood's highest-paid male stars. Nancy Daly Riordan is a children's advocate whose husband, Richard Riordan, is a Republican contender for governor. Sharon Davis' husband is running for reelection as governor. Barbra Streisand is a power broker on multiple fronts.
"We want to join together to educate people and see if there's anything we can do to prevent more terrorism. This is not a group of dilettantes," said a task force leader, Wendy Goldberg, who was a contributing editor to the book "Hollywood Moms."
"Our goal," said Irena Medavoy, the driving force behind the group, "is to facilitate the implementation of a unified state and national program for emergency preparedness and response."
The task force has even drawn up a family emergency plan, with evacuation strategies, first aid tips and passwords so kids can vet a strange driver who might pick them up at school after a disaster.
Sharon Davis said the plan is already in the hands of California state security expert George Vinson, who will determine if it can complement existing disaster preparedness drills, such as Earthquake Week, or be posted on Web sites or sent to schools.
Celebrities have offered to make public service announcements.
"The president called people to action. This is what this community felt they could do," said Davis, who has been in touch with the group--"a lot of these women are personal friends of mine"--since its genesis.
She attended the most recent briefing, held Jan. 30, by Bill Patrick, whose bioterrorism street cred is rooted in his unique past as a manager of the now-defunct U.S. biological weapons program. That's the unit that dreamed up ways to kill America's enemies with disease.
"I think I'm going to frighten you," said Patrick, 76, a stolid, balding gentleman who delights in gallows humor. The group was bivouacked that day at the Beverly Hills mansion of an influential task force leader who declined to be named.
Patrick launched into a treatise on world germ stockpiles and how something as banal as a leaf blower could scatter deadly microbes.
Patrick--who has briefed secretaries of defense, consulted for the CIA and FBI, and was the oldest U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq--waived his usual speaking fee.
"These are dedicated, patriotic ladies who have power, prestige and money," he said. "I was surprised at the depth of their information."
Indeed. By that time, the women had been briefed on security by former Secret Service agent Chuck Vance. They had talked Osama bin Laden with Mideast expert Herb Cohen. They had discussed health issues with Susan Blumenthal, a Bush administration assistant surgeon general. They had hosted a dozen power briefings.