Obama's Celebrity Campaign Addiction
Why Hollywood is wincing a little as the president taps showbiz millions to fight the Kochs.
Barack Obama's recent barrage of Hollywood campaign fund-raisers is drawing backlash from an unlikely place: Hollywood. Some of the president's most ardent entertainment industry supporters quietly tell The Hollywood Reporter that while they realize he needs to deploy all of his weapons to compete with deep-pocketed Republican super PACs, they fear the increasing reliance on stars and celebrity contests could backfire with swing voters and mobilize the right. "We don't like what he's doing, but we understand it," says one Hollywood fund-raising insider. "He has to raise the money. It's a bad situation."
Reaction was particularly strong to the $40,000-a-plate dinner co-hosted June 14 by Sarah Jessica Parker and Vogue editor Anna Wintour with guests including Meryl Streep, Aretha Franklin and Bravo's Andy Cohen. Critics say the tony, heavily promoted event -- Parker sent an e-mail to supporters promising the evening would be "fabulous," and Wintour posted a video online urging supporters to enter a lottery for two tickets -- risked creating the impression of an elitist, out-of-touch candidate in a period of ongoing distress and growing economic inequality. "It's a mistake," a veteran Hollywood exec says flatly of the event, which the Drudge Report headlined "Checks in the City." The exec adds: "He's supposed to be a man of the people, and he's hanging out with Anna Wintour? Is he trying to turn the election into a celebrity reality show?" Conservatives quickly pounced, with Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus writing a column on Breitbart.com titled "Out-of-touch Obama Is in Wintour Wonderland." Even liberal-leaning Jon Stewart reminded viewers that the insufferable magazine editor in The Devil Wears Prada was loosely based on Wintour, quipping, "If there are two things the American people relate to, it's the devil and Prada."
Despite the criticism, the Parker-Wintour event raised at least $2 million for Obama's re-election effort, and a fund-raiser later that evening at The Plaza featuring singers Mariah Carey and Alicia Keys brought in $2.5 million. This is on top of the $15 million raised at a George Clooney dinner in May and millions more from twin June events, one emceed by Ellen DeGeneres and one hosted by Glee co-creator Ryan Murphy. And the Obama campaign is far from done: An online contest is under way that allows donor-participants to name the celebrity they'd like to join for dinner with the president, and on June 26, Obama will appear onstage in Miami at a benefit concert with singer Marc Anthony. Another online contest offers backstage passes to that event (with an entry form in English and Spanish, signaling how important Latinos will be to winning Florida).
Despite the risks, most industry Democrats see no alternative given the Republicans' ability to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in super PAC donations from corporations and ultra-wealthy individuals like brothers Charles and David Koch. Gaming magnate Sheldon Adelson already has given $20 million to GOP campaign coffers and says he's willing to pour as much as $100 million into this election. Without celebrities to generate buzz for Obama's campaign, many believe he will be far outspent.
In addition to the focus on high-profile events with the president, the Obama campaign is homing in on entertainment-industry donor lists, trying to milk even more money out of Hollywood.
"We need you to panic NOW!" wrote Cookie Parker of the Obama campaign in an e-mail that hit showbiz inboxes in early June, urging recipients to commit to giving or raising "$1,000 each month until the election." The increased urgency -- with an event slated for June 20 at actress Donna Mills' L.A. house touting Sharon Stone as a special guest -- also has left some with a bad taste. "After he took office, he ignored everyone here," gripes one L.A. donor, "and now we feel like we're being used."
Still, with Mitt Romney gaining on Obama in many polls, insiders admit they will cough up for the president. Says Universal chief Ron Meyer, an ardent Obama supporter, "He has to do what he has to do."