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George McGovern's Presidential Run Helped Hollywood Shed Blacklist Fears (Analysis)

Norman Lear Producers Guild Awards - P 2011
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images
George McGovern Supporter Norman Lear.

With the help of Norman Lear and the "Malibu Mafia," the former U.S. senator who died on Sunday at 90 brought the entertainment industry's political potential into focus -- and turned the town into the Democrat's ATM.

Former U.S. Sen. George McGovern, who died Sunday at the age of 90, may have been a more significant figure in the history of Hollywood than he was in American political life.

His 1972 anti-Vietman War presidential candidacy first revealed the entertainment industry's potential as a major source of political funding and helped a new generation of Hollywood activists reengage in electoral politics.

McGovern's campaign freed the entertainment industry’s liberals from the fear and reticence that had lingered since the McCarthyite purges and studio blacklists of the early 1950s. Suddenly, actors, writers and directors found that they could safely engage in politics without fear of government repercussions.

STORY: George McGovern Dies: Hollywood's Candidate in '72

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Hollywood’s politics essentially mirrored those of the nation as a whole—Republicans dominated the town’s executive suites, while conventional New Deal Liberals and passionate left-wing activists coexisted in the creative community’s majority. The notorious hearings by the state and federal Un-American activities committees designed to root out alleged Communist subversion ended all that.

Though Frank Sinatra and a handful of other committed Democrats strongly backed John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign, by the mid-'60s even taking a stand on civil rights was regarded as a risky proposition in Hollywood. As it did with so much else in American society, the struggle over the Vietnam War changed that. Through the late 60’s and into the early 1970s, anti-war sentiment surged through the entertainment industry.

McGovern’s anti-war campaign brought Hollywood’s political potential back into acute focus.

When his campaign—a ramshackle affair that never quite pulled itself together—ran out of funds, the newly revived entertainment industry and its associates responded with an unprecedented financial gesture.

PHOTOS: Norman Lear: The Life and Career of a TV Legend

Four of the town’s liberal stalwarts—Stanley Sheinbaum, Max Palevsky, Harold Willens and Norman Lear—agreed to contribute $1 million each to McGovern’s campaign. It was a staggering sum at the time and other large donations followed. The four were characterized—not always flatteringly—as the “Malibu Mafia”—but Hollywood’s role as the Democrats’ ATM had begun.

"We got involved because we were people who cared,"  Lear told The Hollywood Reporter on Sunday. "McGovern was a wonderful man, and smart as hell. He would have made a great president."

It’s interesting to recall that Lear actually was the only Malibu Mafia member with a direct role in the entertainment industry. Sheinbaum was a distinguished economist married to Jack Warner’s daughter; Palevsky was a mathematician turned investor and Willens was an industrialist. All, however, had wide-ranging friendships throughout Hollywood and their influence was decisive.

Journalist and playwright Michele Willens, Harold’s daughter, took an active part in that historic 1972 presidential campaign. She last saw McGovern “a few years ago at a Nation magazine event in NY," she told THR.

"I gave him a ride home after and we had the loveliest talk," Willens said. "I told him how important that campaign and year was to so many of us. He said he had 
no regrets and felt if he had had one more month to let Watergate break, all could have been different. He reminded me of what an important role my dad had played in his life, particularly with a huge fundraiser he organized that year along with (entrepreneur) Miles Rubin and Warren Beatty.”

Willens, who wrote speeches in 1972 for Jack Lemmon, Burt Lancaster and other pro-McGovern stars, recalls seeing her father and mother working as volunteers every day in the candidate’s L.A. headquarters.

“My dad and Beatty were
 on the phone so many times during the campaign that when they saw each other about 15 years later at Sheinbaum's house, Warren took one look at my dad and said, ‘472-4922,’" Willens said. “I remember being in the office during the primaries that year and we were sorting through the mail, when we found a postcard saying ‘You can use 
my name but that's all.’ It was from Barbra Streisand."

As the campaign became more desperate, Beatty called Streisand, Willens said. "She picked up the phone and said, 'You want me to sing.'"

“It was the greatest concert ever," Willens recalled of the April 15, 1972 Los Angeles fundraiser featuring Streisand, James Taylor, Carole King and Quincy Jones.

And the first of many to come.