George Clooney can't decide what role he'd like to play.
This has nothing to do with his flourishing movie career and everything to do with the 2008 presidential campaign, where the involvement of even a widely admired star can be the subject of a serious dilemma.
On the one hand, the actor said in an interview, he would love to throw himself into campaigning for his friend, Sen. Barack Obama, a politician he compares to President Kennedy.
But Clooney is too shrewd a political observer to discount the negative effect celebrity can have on a campaign, especially in a red state. (Look what happened last year when industry favorite Rep. Harold Ford Jr. ran for the Senate in 2006. The Tennessee Democrat's foes called him "Fancy Ford" and portrayed him as a habitue of Hollywood's decadent soirees. It might have been what cost him the election in a close race.)
At the moment Clooney is playing it close to the vest, waiting to see if he can play a part without become a distracting sideshow. His quandary is a measure of Hollywood's growing political sophistication; celebs are beginning to understand that their support can be a double-edged sword.
Clooney points to a deeply personal example of Hollywood backlash: His father, former television anchorman and game show host Nick Clooney, lost his congressional race in Kentucky in 2004 after his opponent blasted him for having "Hollywood values."
"It became an issue of Hollywood versus the heartland," said Clooney, who opted not to publicly campaign for his father. "I believed I could only do him more harm."
So when Obama, an Illinois Democrat, told Clooney last year that he was thinking about running for president, the actor was excited but cautious. "I told him I would do anything for him, including staying completely away from him," said Clooney, speaking recently on his cellphone from the South Carolina set of his latest movie, "Leatherheads."
Obama, however, welcomed Clooney's involvement and support. They got to know each other a year ago while attending a rally to raise awareness about the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan and have stayed in touch. When asked about Clooney at a recent event, Obama broke into a smile, gestured expressively and said simply: "He's a good friend."
There's a kind of nostalgia that runs through Clooney's politics. Anybody who saw his 2005 film "Good Night, and Good Luck" has a notion of where his sentiments run. Though he was only a boy growing up in Kentucky when Kennedy was assassinated, he looks back on that era with a sense of political idealism. (Edward R. Murrow, the protagonist in Clooney's film, left broadcasting to serve in the Kennedy administration.)
When you talk with Clooney and the subject turns to politics, it's like a light going on. He loves the game and the interplay of ideas. "It's like a chess game," he said. "Even after Watergate, we had this feeling that it all involved the greater good."
He subscribes to two newspapers and can quote the top political columnists. He remembers the dialogue from old political debates, and he does a great impersonation of Democratic strategist James Carville.
Unless Clooney is working on a movie, he'll consider most invitations to attend events in Washington. He's a popular guest at the White House Correspondents' Assn. dinner, where even hardened journalists line up to shake his hand.
He's friends with the Clintons. He knows Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). "I like him very much, and I think he's a nice man," Clooney said. "But I disagree with him politically." He admires former Vice President Al Gore. "I sat on a train with him, my father and I. We talked for three hours."
But Obama, clearly, dazzled him.
"We were at a rally on Darfur," Clooney said. "People were standing around backstage. All of a sudden, Obama walks out and steps onto the stage. Everyone stopped to hear what he had to say.... I've never been around anyone who can literally take someone's breath away."
Although the actor may not be campaigning publicly for Obama at the moment, he is certainly working for him behind the scenes.
"I spend a lot of time talking with other people, and I tell them, 'You really have to educate yourself on Obama because the guy is real,' " he said. "He fascinates me. People say, 'Oh, he's too young,' you know. But you cannot learn or teach leadership. You either have it or you don't."
"Everyone says the country isn't ready for a black president. I think that's ridiculous. Is he going to lose Illinois? Is he going to lose New York or California because he's black? No. And maybe he makes some inroads into other places, and maybe, for once, he could get young people to show up and vote."
Despite his caution over participating, a national Obama campaign would be hard for Clooney to sit out. Like others in the entertainment industry, he is trying to figure out how to write a political part that will get good reviews in Middle America.