Hollywood and Politics

The story is told that when Ronald Reagan announced his candidacy for governor of California, an aide went to Jack Warner, and said, “Jack, what do you think of Ronald Reagan for governor?”  Warner frowned for a second and replied, “Oh, no. No, no, no.  Burt Lancaster for governor.  Ronald Reagan for best friend.”

I love that story, even if it isn’t true, because it reminds me that we’re not so much electing a President as casting a role. One of the indelible images of this campaign season has to be Clint Eastwood, at the RNC, carrying on a conversation with an empty chair.  It was surreal, not least because of the way people responded to it.  Conservatives saw it as a superb and funny indictment of the empty promises of the Obama Presidency, and liberals wondered why Republicans, already branded as a party of old white men, would give that much air time to an old white guy yelling at a chair.  Both sides saw their opponents in that chair; I saw a scene that can only have been scripted by Ionesco.  I keep linking to Chuck Norris’ political ad–linked to it yesterday, in fact–but I thought I’d show this one instead. “A thousand years of darkness,” wow. And, of course, lots and lots of Hollywood types have also supported President Obama, from Scarlett Johansson to John Cusack to George Clooney to Matt Damon.  All of them, basically, except for Tom Cruise, who has endorsed the Emperor Xenu.

I love Presidents in movies and TV.  I love Jeff Bridges in The Contender, who delights in ordering obscure sandwiches from the White House kitchen. I love Bill Pullman in Independence Day, inspiring the troops as they prepare to kick serious space alien butt, giving the silliest version ever of Henry V’s St. Crispin’s Day speech. I love Harrison Ford, snarling “get off my plane” in Air Force One.  I love that Dennis Haysbert, the President from 24, now sells auto insurance, and that his biggest role previously was as Pedro Cerrano, the chicken-sacrificing slugger in Major League.  And that Morgan Freeman is the only actor, far as I know, to have played both the President of the United State, and God.  Not to mention Nelson Mandela.

No actors in this election, unfortunately, unless you think some modicum of acting skill is a requirement for any politician.  But there are always celebrity endorsements, of course, and fund-raisers, and other links to pols.  By far the oddest Hollywood connection to President Obama is this one: he essentially owes his Presidency to Seven of Nine. True story.

Star Trek: Voyager, the fourth Star Trek series, was struggling to get the ratings the previous Star Trek series had gotten.  Midway through their third season, in a two-part episode entitled Scorpion, they introduced a new character, Seven of Nine, a young woman who had been assimilated by The Borg.  Over the next four seasons, Seven’s struggle to regain her humanity became one of the most compelling storylines in the series; perhaps even in the entire Star Trek universe.

Seven of Nine was played by Jeri Ryan, an astonishingly attractive blonde woman, a former Miss Illinois, a third runner-up for Miss America.  Also a terrific actress; she brought tremendous depth to a complex and interesting character, and has remained a very successful actor ever since, with major roles in such series as Boston Public and Body of Proof. But her chilly blonde beauty led to her unofficial nickname on Trekkie fan pages: ‘Barbie Borg’.

In 1990, well before her Star Trek success, she married an investment banker and aspiring politician named Jack Ryan.  Jack Ryan is, of course, the name of the main character in a series of Tom Clancy novels, most of which have been made into movies, and Jack Ryan has been played by Alec Baldwin in The Hunt for Red October, by Harrison Ford in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, and by Ben Affleck in The Sum of All Fears.  I can’t help but think that the name Jack Ryan was helpful in launching a political career. (Would you vote for a New York pol named Clark Kent?)  Anyway, the real Jack Ryan, the politician, and his actress wife Jeri Ryan divorced in 1999.  In interviews, Jeri Ryan said the tensions of her career in California and his in Illinois were in part to blame. By mutual agreement, their divorce records, specifically those records relating to the custody of their son, were sealed by the court.

In 2003, Jack Ryan ran for the US Senate in Illinois.  And the Chicago Tribune and ABC News sued to unseal those custody records, arguing that the public’s right to know stuff about a guy running for national office trumped the stated wishes of both parents of a minor child.  Jack Ryan was running as a family-values social conservative.  When the courts ruled in favor of the media outlets (a controversial and in my view wrong-headed decision) it was discovered that Jack Ryan was a real sicko.  I don’t have the stomach to provide details; Jeri Ryan’s Wikipedia entry provides enough.  Anyway, Jack Ryan withdrew from the race.  The Republicans replaced him with a much weaker candidate, who lost badly to a liberal Democrat state legislator with a funny name. Barack Obama.

One of the reasons Obama was asked to speak at the Democratic national convention in 2004 was not just because he was a charismatic speaker, but also because he was winning his race in a landslide. If Jack Ryan had remained, untainted, on the ticket, it would have been a much closer race, and possibly one that Obama might have lost.  But Obama’s massive win in Illinois launched his national political career.  Which means, it’s quite possible that Barack Obama would not be President today without Seven of Nine.  Not sure it gets weirder than that.

Except that it does.  The producers of The West Wing relied on a few White House veterans for details and accuracy; two executive producers were Pat Caddell and Dee Dee Myers.  Caddell had been a pollster who had worked in both George McGovern and Jimmy Carter’s Presidential campaigns, and had also worked on Joe Biden’s staff.  Dee Dee Myers had been Bill Clinton’s Press Secretary, and was the person CJ Cregg was based on.  But the most important politico-turned-West Wing-writer was a guy named Eli Attie, who had worked as a speech writer for Al Gore.  After Aaron Sorkin, the show’s creator, left the show after the fourth season, the producers decided they would wind things down by focusing on the Presidential election to replace President Bartlett (Martin Sheen).  Attie decided to recommend basing the new character, candidate, nominee and President-elect, on an obscure Illinois state senator: Barack Obama.  And they did. Matt Santos/Obama parallels abound: unknown politicians, young and ethnic minorities, running against respected Republican elder statesmen disliked by social conservatives?

I would point out that Martin Sheen, who played Jed Bartlett, also played Jack Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, and Robert E. Lee. But he also played a completely evil President in The Dead Zone.

In a couple of weeks, we’re going to get to see Daniel Day-Lewis as the greatest of all American Presidents in Stephen Spielberg’s LincolnSalon magazine thinks there’s a parallel there too, between Lincoln’s day and ours, between one tall skinny obscure Illinois politician, and ours.  I think that’s a stretch.  Conservatives and liberals may not like each other much right now, but we’re not shooting at each other.  But this entire election seems strange, now that it’s winding to a close.  Almost like. . .  a movie.


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