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What price Oprah?

The popular TV personality helps Obama draw big crowds, but some fans are fuming.

December 28, 2007|TINA DAUNT

With less than a week until Iowa's first vote is cast in the 2008 presidential election, the politicians aren't the only ones feeling the heat: Celebrities, who have become important players in the political fundraising process, are under increasing pressure to campaign for their favorite candidates in the early caucus and primary states.

But how a star -- particularly a supernova -- responds isn't always a simple matter of "yes" or "no." With the exception of Oprah Winfrey, who's been working the trail with mixed results for Democrat Sen. Barack Obama, most of the A-listers have opted to stay out of the spotlight for now. (Chuck Norris, who has campaigned everywhere for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican candidate, occupies a planet of his own.)

Although it's true that rallies featuring Winfrey in Iowa and South Carolina have drawn some of the biggest crowds of the campaign so far, Obama's people won't know whether they also triggered a backlash until election day.

Winfrey's website has been buzzing for weeks with angry postings about her involvement in the Illinois senator's campaign, something Hollywood, which always keeps its eye on the public mood, is bound to notice -- this is a town, after all, that measures success by weekly grosses and daily TV ratings.

One posting on her site,, accused the talk diva of being a traitor. (By Thursday, that message string had attracted more than 12,000 views.) Another poster told Winfrey to "stop pushing Obama down our throats." (There were 3,000 hits logged on that one.) Another said: "Do you really know Barack Hussein Obama? Scary & something we have to take into consideration!" (There were more than 4,000 views for that.)

"First of all I want to say that I am a HUGE Oprah fan," one poster wrote. "I love what she stands for. She is a strong woman changing the world. However, I have been extremely disappointed with her recent touring with Barack Obama. It is a manipulation and an abuse of her power and influence on the American culture.

"Let the American people form their own opinion, Oprah."

Since Winfrey announced over the summer that she was supporting Obama, more than 25,000 views of more than 345 separate discussions -- almost all of them centering on the campaign -- have been roiling along in the local and world news section of her website. By comparison, there were eight discussions going in recent weeks on the issue of global warming, which had generated about 1,100 views.

From the beginning, Hollywood A-listers have seen the potential for this kind of blow-back.

George Clooney, who also supports Obama and is a longtime friend of the senator, has been reluctant to campaign in person, not because he's worried about the effect on his film career but because experience has taught him that a celebrity's presence can hurt a candidate.

In a dinner-party conversation in Rome recently, Clooney said that Obama's people have been urging him to go out on the trail. "I've told them that having me out there would hurt more than help. I know they don't see it that way."

He added: "I didn't even campaign for my own father." (Ultimately his father, newscaster Nick Clooney, who ran for Congress as a Democrat in Kentucky several years ago, ended up losing his bid. His Republican opponent blasted him for having "Hollywood values.")

Several months ago, producer Mike Medavoy had a blunt assessment of celebrity endorsements: "Who cares?"

This week, however, he announced that he was going with Obama. "I've been looking for a leader who, above all, will lead by example," Medavoy blogged on Huffington Post. For the record: Medavoy's wife, Irena, is a huge Obama fan and fundraiser. His endorsement may win him more points at home in Beverly Park than it does votes for Obama in Iowa.

A few others hitting the trail this holiday season include singer Bonnie Raitt and actor Tim Robbins (for former Sen. John Edwards, a North Carolina Democrat) and Magic Johnson (strong for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a New York Democrat).

Hollywood publicist Howard Bragman sees celebrity involvement as a good thing: It gets people thinking and talking about the campaign and reminds them they need to vote.

"The overall effect can be very powerful," Bragman said. "Let's be clear. I don't think endorsements can win a race, but it can catapult a candidate into a position where they have the ability to win."

But he also sounded a note of caution: Don't overdo it. "Celebrities can be seen as carpetbaggers," Bragman said.

Brad Pitt is following Clooney's lead in keeping a low profile: Although friends say Pitt has been leaning toward Obama, he has made it clear publicly that he has not made up his mind and won't be doing any campaigning soon. (He's also partnering with producer Steve Bing, an influential Clinton supporter, in an effort to rebuild New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward.)

Pitt told CNN's Larry King last month that he's "still listening," which is apparently what a lot of voters are doing.

(It's been decades since either party had a clear front-runner at this point, making this election a Hobbesian nightmare of all-against-all.)

Pitt, always willing to think outside the box, jokingly suggested to another interviewer that maybe Clooney should run for president. And if he doesn't want the job, perhaps Ben Affleck would be a good second choice.

Isn't that the story of both their careers?


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