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Peter Bart

Peter Bart

Posted: August 3, 2008 02:25 PM

Will Obama be Star-Struck?


George Clooney thinks it's risky. Sean Combs (P. Diddy) thinks it's urgently important.

Every celebrity feels differently on the question of political advocacy -- whether a star should campaign for a candidate and whether that effort helps or hurts.

That argument has taken on a different perspective now that John McCain has made celebrity a key campaign issue. His new ads depict Obama as a rock star, a kindred spirit of folks like Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. He's not a serious man-of-the-people like John McCain.

Political strategists are fascinated by this McCain ploy. Here is one of history's most uncharismatic candidates attempting to capitalize on his blandness by stressing the celebrity of his rival.

On the one hand, the tactic seems too transparent to succeed. But the strategists behind the McCain campaign were mentored by the team that sold George Bush as a man-of-the-people, even though he was a rich Yalie who'd never held a job.

The strategy nonetheless brings into question whether stars will be helping or hurting Obama by rallying behind him. Only last week, a group of Obama backers in Hollywood were prepping another "star-studded gala" with an honorary board including Jessica Alba, Don Cheadle, Ashley Judd, Lucy Liu and others.

Indeed, it's hardly a secret that the show-business community favors Obama -- political contributions from Hollywood total $4.4 million for Obama vs. $757,546 for McCain.

Obama's tacticians reportedly are pondering a ploy similar to that used by Arnold Schwarzenegger a few years ago -- namely, stepping away from Hollywood backers and reinventing himself as a non-celebrity crusader for his political ideals.

Only in American politics would a strategy this surreal even be contemplated. The guys who plot campaigns clearly have become more akin to Hollywood screenwriters than to traditional politicos.

Obama, a black guy who fought his way through Chicago politics, is being reinvented by the Republicans as Bono. John McCain, who spent virtually his whole life working for the government in the military, is reshaped as a man who is intimate with the problems of the working man.

Since politics has become more Hollywood than Hollywood, should stars get mixed up in this mess? I can understand why a Clooney would say, "Careful, we may reinforce the stereotypes if we campaign for Obama."

I would argue the opposite. The dialogue is so surreal that the presence of the true stars may remind voters that, in politics as in the arts, reality and unreality are constantly colliding. Hence, star power still counts.

Besides, why let the Karl Roves of the world have all the fun?

If stars are wary about backing Obama, Jon Voight has showed no such inhibition in his support for McCain. Writing an op-ed piece in the Washington Times, Voight warned that an Obama win would trigger "a socialist era" in America.

Voight reminded readers that he had endured the sixties in this country when, he recalled, "The radicals undermined our Vietnam initiative" and "were successful in giving the communists power." Voight predicted that others in Hollywood would soon rally on McCain's behalf.

Personally, I appreciate Voight's fervor, but worry about his intellectual equipment. I remember that moment in the early '70s when Paramount offered Voight the lead role in "Love Story," opposite Ali McGraw. Voight had just achieved stardom thanks to "Midnight Cowboy" and suddenly had his choice of roles.

As a young production executive at the studio, I was trying to push "Love Story" forward and joined colleagues in trying to interest Voight in the part. However the more we prodded, the more reluctant he became.

He finally blurted: "The character in this movie is a Harvard student. He's bright. He reads books. I could never be believable as that smart young guy."

Reading Voight's op-ed piece these many years later, I realize how right he was.

Crossposted from Variety.com.