George Rush and Joanna Molloy wrote the internationally syndicated "Rush & Molloy" gossip column for 15 years in the New York Daily News. In their new memoir, 'Scandal: A Manual' (Skyhorse), they share behind-the-scenes stories from their tabloid romance with celebrities, politicians, gangsters, tipsters, fixers, blackmailers...and each other.
In this exclusive excerpt, they recall the mood in Hollywood during George W. Bush's presidency.
September 11th presented Republicans with a new political crisis: those loathsome Hollywood liberals were actually praising them. After listening to President Bush's address to Congress, actor Matthew Modine told us how impressed he was with "his wisdom." Woody Allen allowed that Bush "has got a good grasp on the problem [of terrorism]." Yet, after the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, celebrities grew bolder again. Harrison Ford was reported to be in Bush's corner. But when we asked him if that was true, the Air Force One star said he actually detested Bush's military strategy.
"What I'm for is a regime change on both sides," Ford quipped.
The claim that Ford had opposed an antiwar statement signed by 104 actors and directors had originated -- not surprisingly -- on Fox News. No one at Fox was better at sneering at Bush's celebrity critics than Bill O'Reilly. Initially, O'Reilly had found Rush & Molloy's coverage fair and balanced. But then we got our hands on an advance copy of the lad mag Stuff. In it, Photoshopped animals posed questions to O'Reilly. A bobcat asked him which country had the ugliest women.
"The most unattractive women in the world are probably in the Muslim countries," the jowly pundit declared. That was why "[they're] dressed head to toe in black and I can only see eyebrows."
We took it upon ourselves to see what Muslims thought of O'Reilly's dig at their women.
"It's an extremely offensive and racist statement," said Rania Masri, of the Arab Women's Solidarity Association.
"If he really believes this, then he probably needs his head examined," said Hussein Ibish, of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
We called O'Reilly for comment. Around 6 p.m., when our column was on its way to the presses, O'Reilly called back. I told him that we'd found some Arab Americans who didn't agree that their women were repellant. O'Reilly accused us of "stirring up" controversy--something he surely would never do.
"Do not run this story," O'Reilly demanded.
"Why, Bill? Did they misquote you?"
"I'm telling you not to run this story," he repeated.
O'Reilly claimed he had sneered at the flowers of Islam only in "jest." But he wasn't about to apologize. Instead, he threatened to sue us and have his boss, Roger Ailes, call our publisher, Mort Zuckerman.
I promised to include O'Reilly's comments but said I didn't see why we shouldn't report something that was going to be on every newsstand in a couple of days.
The next day, the story ran under the headline: "A NOT-SO-VEILED INSULT FROM O'REILLY." The story described the interview as "jokey" and "playful" and quoted O'Reilly as saying, "There was no malice intended."
That evening, O'Reilly began his show with a "Talking Points Memo" devoted to the subject of "creeping evil." He said that Osama bin Laden, The Unabomber, and the Beltway Sniper were all obvious villains but that, sometimes, evil is less "well-defined." The previous evening, he said, "I was on the phone with a gossip writer who was printing something that was distorted and would be dangerous to the person involved. I laid out a case to that writer that was undeniable. His response? 'I don't care.' Evil."
O'Reilly never told his viewers that he was "the person involved." He never told us that the article could be "dangerous." And I never said, "I don't care." Only later did a Fox News spokesman divulge that Muslims had been writing angry letters because evangelist Pat Robertson said on Fox that the prophet Muhammad was "a robber and a brigand." But we were flattered to have Bill O'Reilly consider us "evil."
By the third week in March 2003, thousands of American troops were poised to invade Iraq. Inconsiderately, Bush and Congress paid no mind to the long-planned Academy Awards. Arriving in Los Angeles, we found that almost every pre-Oscar party had turned into a prayer vigil. At an AmFAR fundraiser, Sharon Stone asked for a moment of silence for the families in Iraq. Stylists told their actress clients to dress in black and tone down the jewelry. The night we got to town, we headed to the Beverly Hills home of Black Sabbath rocker Ozzy Osbourne and his wife Sharon. For months, they and Elton John had been planning a charity dinner for their foundations. But in the last few days, they'd debated whether to call the benefit off.
By now, even Bush's harshest critics were voicing their support of the troops. But some of the party's older guests remained strident.
Tony Bennett remembered "the horror" he saw as an infantryman in World War II. "That was a good war -- it had to be done," he told us. "This isn't a good war."
Guest of honor Elizabeth Taylor was fighting a stomach virus, but she told us that what really "sickens me beyond belief " was Bush.
"You don't think [terrorists] are going to retaliate? You don't think they're going to bomb the shit out of us? It's going to be terrifying."
Elton, who wore a diamond peace symbol on his lapel, said, "I'm not for the war. I love America. [But] you can't say you're against the war without being called a traitor."
Later that weekend, we headed to the Independent Spirit Awards, where we spotted Brad Pitt nibbling on his lunch. Once again, the conversation turned to Iraq. What did Pitt think of the impending invasion?
"We can't go back now," said Pitt. "We're in this together as Americans. We're going to have to go in and get the job done as soon as possible."
Pitt didn't buy Bush's linkage of Saddam and Al Qaeda and wondered, "Why attack now?" But he respected Bush for "pushing the issue, so people were forced to take a stand." Now that we've reached a diplomatic dead end, Pitt said, "We have to be productive instead of concentrating on what we should have done. Where do we go from this day forward?"
Early the next morning, the day of the Oscars, the phone rang. It was Brad Pitt's publicist, Cindy Guagenti.
"I've been calling every hotel in L.A. trying to find you," she said. "Brad said he talked to you yesterday."
"That's right," I said.
"That's right. Is there something wrong?"
"Well, he can't remember exactly what he said."
I began to suspect why Pitt had kept his sunglasses on inside. Guagenti went on: "Would you mind telling me what you have him saying?"
I read her his quotes. She agreed that Pitt's remarks were measured and respectful of the troops. Was he worried about being branded a traitor -- as Elton had warned? Or did he fear that, by Hollywood standards, he hadn't been hard enough on Bush?
As the death toll in Iraq mounted, Hollywood liberals became more vocal again. At the premier of his sword-and-sandal epic, Troy. Brad Pitt agreed that Bush's search for weapons of mass destruction had turned out to be a Trojan horse.
"There was a line in The Iliad that sticks in my mind," said Pitt, "where Achilles asks, 'What are we doing here, afflicting the Trojans and afflicting their land?'"
Others were more blunt. In July 2004, we covered a fundraiser for John Kerry and John Edwards at Radio City. Chevy Chase, for one, called President Bush "dumb as an egg timer." The Republicans used the comments to tar Kerry. His campaign especially disavowed Whoopi's shtick and advised her to stay away from the Democratic National Convention.
At a small screening of his western, Open Range, Kevin Costner admitted being bothered by Dubya's squinty-eyed, Dead-or-Alive posturing.
"We're supposed to evolve from frontier justice," he told us. Costner was obviously keeping a few bullets in his revolver. He mentioned that he'd voted for another candidate, not Bush, in 2000. He asked us to leave that part out. He explained that he'd played golf with the first President Bush and been to the Bush house in Kennebunkport.
"I don't want to turn my back on that family," he said. "They've been gracious to me."
We granted him a retroactive off-the-record at the time. We understood his dilemma. Bill O'Reilly may have called us "bad people." A right-wing blog may have branded us the "loyal lapdogs" of MoveOn.org, the liberal advocacy group. But we actually did have Republican friends. We had riotous arguments over drinks with law-and-order cops and private eyes. We had a great rapport with Representative Peter King, head of the House Homeland Security Committee. If a liberal wanted to find out what conservatives were up to, you had to wade in among them, "dress in mufti," as my friend, Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy, used to say. But we, too, sometimes found it hard to hold our tongues. Henry Kissinger returned our calls because we had a mutual friend. But then came the Four Seasons party for Kissinger's book, Crisis, based on recorded White House conversations. We apparently asked the former secretary of state too many pointed questions about alleged war crimes and whether he'd pruned the White House transcripts to make himself look more sympathetic. Soon after, Dr. K took our mutual friend aside to ask, "Are we sure Rush is on our team?"