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Star Turns
Comments () | Published August 1, 2009

“When Bono came around, it was never about him,” says John Feehery, a GOP strategist who once worked for senior House Republicans. “It was about the issue, and he knew it, and he did everything in a bipartisan way. He was passionate, he was committed, but he was also very humble. He didn’t assume everyone knew who he was. He would go to breakfast with staff and get to know them.”

Bono succeeded in getting President Bill Clinton and a Republican-controlled Congress to agree on canceling hundreds of millions of dollars owed the United States by developing countries. When he began lobbying to increase Western funds for AIDS prevention and treatment in Africa, Bono got President George W. Bush to propose a record amount—$15 billion—for the cause.

“Suddenly there seemed to be a big change,” Flournoy says. “Stars were doing real work, not just press conferences.”

“Bono’s taken it all to a different dimension,” says Mitch Bainwol of the Recording Industry Association. “The thing about musicians, they’re a little like politicians. They make careers out of connecting with people. It’s about a voice, yes, but also a presence onstage. When I think about musicians, they’re very similar to politicians in that they’re very good at connecting with people.”

Actors aren’t far behind. “Similar impulses propel people into politics or show business, especially acting,” says Huey. “Many of the same skill sets are in play, like the power of persuasion.” Just as a pol tries to persuade people to believe in his candidacy, “an actor tries to persuade an audience to believe in his character.”

Huey says one of the most effective persuaders he’s ever worked with is Fran Drescher of TV’s The Nanny. “She’s lobbied on broadcast decency legislation, arts funding, and cancer research, and she’s incredible,” he says. “When people sit down with her, they’re not ready for this woman to start quoting facts, figures, and statistics, all without books or notes.”

Drescher also can improvise. In search of converts to supporting arts funding, she once met with Kansas senator Sam Brownback, who told her he didn’t think the government should be spending money on such a thing, Huey recalls.

“She said, ‘Senator, you recently sponsored legislation on violent video games. What if kids had something like an arts program that could be an alternative to playing violent video games? Isn’t that something the government ought to create incentives for?’ ”

Brownback said he hadn’t thought about it like that.

A cancer survivor, Drescher also rounded up congressional support to pass the Gynecologic Cancer Education and Awareness Act of 2005.

Angelina Jolie is said to be “drilled down” in the minutiae of the international refugee crisis, having seen it up close many times. For eight years she has lobbied to enact legal protections for unaccompanied refugee children coming to the United States. Last December, President Bush signed into law the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, which provides those protections.

“How you make an impact in Washington is different from how you make it in LA,” says Trevor Neilson of the Global Philanthropy Group, which helps Pitt, Jolie, and others. “I’m fairly new to LA, but when you’re advocating on issues in Washington, there’s a greater expectation of real expertise.

“There are so many cheesy events we get invited to in LA—red-carpet parties, fundraisers—and lots of people attend thinking they’re creating social change. We almost always recommend that our clients not attend such events because you can’t party your way to social change. But there’s a perception in Los Angeles that you can.”

Anne-Marie Johnson puts it more bluntly: “The average person does perceive actors as stupid, and most are. But some of us take our notoriety seriously.” 

This article first appeared in the August 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.

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Posted at 05:00 PM/ET, 08/01/2009 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles