Albert Brooks was on the phone with a Washington reporter, doing what he does best–whining. Brooks's latest movie, The Muse, was one long whine about the avarice of Hollywood's power players, but his complaint on this occasion was about politicians–specifically Michael Dukakis.
Remember Michael Dukakis? Albert Brooks does, with a vengeance. Twelve years ago Brooks was a celebrity volunteer in Dukakis's presidential campaign, writing one-liners to brighten the candidate's wonkish speeches. After one Brooks joke got a big laugh at a major speech, the writer/actor approached Dukakis aboard his campaign plane to suggest that the candidate use self-deprecating humor in future speeches. It would go over big, said Brooks, in Peoria.
Dukakis's response? He nodded, gazed out the window, and said he'd take the suggestion up with his staff.
Brooks was furious. He still is. Never again, he says, will he cast his creative pearls before political swine.
Hollywood, in case you haven't heard, is a town filled with celebrities who take their political opinions–and themselves–very seriously. Joke writers are no exception. Al Eisele, who served as press secretary to Vice President Walter Mondale, remembers a similar face-off between Mondale and his gag writers during the 1984 presidential campaign.
"The writers felt they needed time with the Vice President, so we set up a meeting," recalls Eisley. "They got very upset when Mondale didn't laugh at their jokes. I explained he had a lot on his mind."
For those wondering why a busy presidential candidate would take the time to meet with his joke writers, the answer lies in Washington's peculiar relationship with Hollywood–Ego City East meets Ego City West.
A recent issue of Variety, the bible of the entertainment world, points out that the lineup of film stars and show-business personalities for next year's presidential race has begun. No real surprises–yet. De Niro and Costner back the Democrats, Schwarzenegger and Willis support Republicans. No sign, other than Annette Bening's endorsement, of a groundswell for Warren Beatty.
It all started, according to entertainment historian Neal Gabler, when film stars volunteered to promote war-bond sales during World Wars I and II. Then as now, Hollywood was thought of in political circles as a good place for fundraising. The joke writers came in 1960, when John F. Kennedy tapped into his West Coast contacts for sharp one-liners.
"Kennedy had the swingers; we had the old-timers," recalls a veteran of Richard Nixon's 1960 campaign. "Our Hollywood supporters that year were relics from the silver-screen era. But they were still huge with the age group that contributes the most."
Did they, like Mondale's joke writers, require special stroking?
"Anytime you're dealing with Hollywood activists in a political campaign, you're walking on eggs," says the Nixon veteran. "Fortunately, the ones we had that year didn't need much face time with the candidate. Hollywood types bored Nixon. He thought they were political idiots."
My own campaign experience, beginning with Barry Goldwater's presidential run in 1964, tells me that your average Hollywood activist, whether Democrat or Republican–Barbra Streisand or Wayne Newton–understands as much about politics as the average politician understands about filmmaking.
Some stars, like hyper-activist Richard Dreyfuss, acknowledge as much by hiring personal political advisers–on the order of personal trainers–to keep them up to speed. Other celebrities, with bigger egos, insist on getting their information straight from the candidates.
Norman Sherman, press secretary to Vice President Hubert Humphrey during the 1968 campaign, tells of Humphrey's one-on-one sessions with two such stars, singer Sonny Bono and actor Paul Newman.
"We were told that an endorsement by Sonny Bono could help us with young voters, and Newman was an important voice among Hollywood liberals," says Sherman. "But before either would commit, they wanted to pin Humphrey down on the Vietnam War, civil rights, and other issues."
The summits, as Sherman calls the meetings with Bono and Newman, took place in the Vice President's convention suite in Chicago. Bono, then in his hippie mode, came loaded for establishment bear.
"It was like a verbal tennis match for the better part of an hour," Sherman recalls. "Humphrey was bemused by it, but to give Bono credit, he'd done his homework."
Which was more than could be said for Paul Newman, whose first question on arriving at the suite was why Humphrey had chickened out and made his famous 1948 civil-rights speech in Philadelphia rather than Birmingham or some other city in the then-segregated South.
Humphrey took a deep breath. "Because Philadelphia," he explained, "was where the Democratic convention was held that year."
"Oh," Newman replied.
None of that could have happened to a Republican presidential candidate in those years, least of all Barry Goldwater, whose Hollywood backers came to his campaign, no questions asked.
That was the year Humphrey, running for vice president, told an audience that Barry was so reactionary, "if he owned a movie studio he'd call it '18th-Century Fox.' "
A joke writer's line–one that even Goldwater thought so funny that he used it in a Los Angeles speech following a 48-hour train trek through the Southwest.
It was on that two-day whistlestop that I, as Goldwater's deputy press secretary, learned my first lesson in the care and coddling of Hollywood egos. As in 1960, the Democrats had the live ones–Newman, Gregory Peck, Shirley MacLaine–and we had the old-timers.
Not that John Wayne and Ronald Reagan didn't strike sparks with audiences, but on that campaign swing neither was available. Wayne was in the hospital, recovering from surgery; Reagan was in a studio cutting the TV spot for Goldwater that would launch his own political career two years later.
That left us with three B-movie relics and one touch of glitter as we headed west to Los Angeles aboard the Goldwater Special. The relics were Randolph Scott, George Murphy, and Rory Calhoun; the glitter was Gloria Swanson, who still exuded great-lady glamour, though she had to be pushing 70.
The schedule called for a motorcade into town when we arrived at Union Station–five vehicles, with all the Hollywood actors in a stretch limo. But one stop shy of LA, the great lady beckoned from the club car. She had a request about the motorcade. Her drink, I recall, was Dewar's and soda; her request was pure Tinseltown.
I took it to our campaign manager, Denny Kitchel. We called him the All-Wise. He heard me out, then said, "No problem."
So it was that when the Goldwater motorcade swept into town that afternoon, past Sunset Boulevard into Bel Air, it sported one limo (for the candidate), one staff car, one van (for security), one press bus, and four convertibles. White Cadillac convertibles. One per star.
It wouldn't play big in Peoria. But as the All-Wise said, this was Hollywood.