It was the end of the affair.
When Bill Clinton stood in the Staples Center Monday night, surrounded by movie stars and union members, introduced by a wet video in the dry air of Los Angeles, while outside police and demonstrators created a pageant reminiscent of 1968 and 1972, it showed more than ever why the President had made Hollywood so happy. He was the very synthesis of all their story lines. “Isn’t it great to be in California?” he asked. And then he went into the story in which he didn’t exhort, in which he explained how we were to understand history.
Forty years ago, in the best-known piece of convention journalism after H.L. Mencken, Norman Mailer called John F. Kennedy’s 1960 Los Angeles nominating convention “Superman Comes to the Supermarket.” This convention, of course, belongs to Vice President Clark Kent, loping ever so slowly to the town that dreads his appearance like the science teacher you wish wouldn’t come back from vacation; seeding it with his daughters, his former adversaries, his judges, and of course his predecessor who modeled himself on Mailer’s 1960 Superman.
But Mailer had written of John Kennedy as a hero, and Bill Clinton was anything but. He was a protagonist perhaps, and magnificent, and amazingly, the synthesis of the past 70 years of American culture. For in his magnificent and self-loving address on Aug. 14, he seemed in turn reminiscent of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Elvis, L.B.J., J.F.K., Muhammad Ali- “this is a b-i-i-i-g election” he rasped into the microphone the way Ali did before a fight-and the Clutch Cargo parodies of him on Conan O’Brien’s show. He waved and crooked his long priapic fingers, smiled and waved his big head, went off-road from his text endlessly, had the gall to indulge in a little self-pity with his majestic triumph, and generally sucked in the moment in the magnificently-lit Staples Center as though it was a big vanilla malted.
For that they loved him, and the depth of that love could be gauged in Hollywood’s after-the-fact support for him: Cher’s announcement on TV that she hadn’t voted for him in 1992 or 1996, and she was really, really sorry. Barbra’s mad embrace of him, and Jeffrey Katzenberg’s and Les Moonves’ and John Travolta’s. They loved him desperately: he had created an era in which all bets were off, in which patriotism and sex and altruism and self-interest all merged, in which the past was not predictive, but there to be sculpted, rewritten, used for their purposes, and his.
He was not so much the hero as Mailer’s description of John Kennedy: “The sexual and the sex-starved, the poor, the hard-working and the imaginative well-to-do could see themselves in the President, could believe him to be like themselves.”
But Mr. Clinton was his own version. Most people couldn’t see themselves as Bill Clinton…but they could imagine it. And Hollywood could imagine it most of all. He, like them, was a weaver of the happy moment, the teary smile, the sentimental narrative, and he, like they was prone to tantrums and temper at the corrupted message.
But this was the end of the affair.
And Hollywood, which prefers affairs to remember, seemed to be struggling to find something memorable about the man whom the Democratic party had chosen as Mr. Clinton’s successor.
Director Rob Reiner tried. He really tried to make Mr. Gore look attractive when MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews buttonholed him just past the security check at the V.I.P. entrance to the Staples Center.
“Here’s what’s going to happen, I think,” Mr. Reiner said to Mr. Matthews. “I was with the Vice President yesterday in Ohio, and he showed me a film that [ Being John Malkovich director] Spike Jonze did. And, and it’s great, I mean…” Mr. Reiner stumbled some more then got traction. “Here’s what’s going to happen ,” he said. “That film shows Al Gore with his family, his friends. It’s the most real film I’ve ever seen. I’m not talking about the biography film,” said the man who played Meathead on All in The Family . “He’s very human, a family man, very funny with his kids, his wife. I think that’s going to put us over the top.”
Mr. Reiner’s testimonial seemed rather, well, flaccid compared to the man with whom Hollywood had just had an eight-year fling. Mr. Clinton was the man who had E.T.’s electrifying touch and Warren Beatty’s sex appeal, not to mention the warm personal friendships with Mr. Beatty, E.T .’ s director Mr. Spielberg, and DreamWorks co-founder David Geffen. Christophe cut his hair! He made Ms. Streisand sing and Democratic activist Patricia Duff swoon. And when he got in trouble with that woman, Monica Lewinsky, he asked one of Hollywood’s own, television producer Harry Thomason, to hold his hand while he recorded his 1998 mea culpa to the nation.
And Mr. Gore? He was the guy who chose Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, who, as the first Jew to be nominated for a national ticket, would have been celebrated in Jewish Hollywood, were it not for his association with conservative tight ass Bill Bennett and something called the Silver Sewer awards, which the two men used to denounce what they felt was Hollywood’s raunchiest, most deplorable product.
And Mr. Bennett’s chilly presence at the Staples Center media suites – sybarite Jack Nicholson’s home away from home – wasn’t exactly helping matters. “[The Hollywood establishment] loves Clinton,” Mr. Bennett said. “He’s their guy. I mean, they’re not even sure he did anything wrong.” He paused for a moment. “It’s a mutual admiration society. Gore’s just not their kind of guy. And Lieberman is really a problem with them.”
Not that a consummate politician like Motion Picture Association of America chief Jack Valenti would ever admit to such a problem. A few minutes after Mr. Reiner entered the hall, the snowy-maned Mr. Valenti was allowed to circumvent the metal detectors. “The guy must have thought I had an innocent face,” Mr. Valenti said, when the Observer asked him how he’d gotten a pass from security. “I was a little shocked by it myself.” Before he got on the main escalator leading up the skyboxes, Mr. Valenti was asked whether the love affair between Hollywood and Washington would end when Mr. Clinton left office. A smile crept onto the M.P.A.A. chief’s face and he became animated in a Yosemite Sam kind of way.
“Well, keep in mind the two issues that are most important to me,” he said. “Protection of copyright and trade, allowing us to move around the world. We have massive bipartisan support, no matter who’s in the White House. We had it under Bush. We had it under Clinton,” Mr. Valenti continued. “We’ll have it under Gore or Bush. We’re in great shape. It doesn’t make any difference!”
Mr. Valenti smiled and hopped on the escalator. He was followed by a trio of television actors, former L.A. Law star Harry Hamlin, former NYPD Blue star Sharon Lawrence, and former Ally McBeal star Gil Bellows, who were guests of the Creative Coalition.
Next up, was DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg, and the Observer jumped on the escalator with him. Only Mr. Katzenberg wasn’t interested in answering our question, which was whether he thought that Mr. Gore would be a President that Hollywood would adore. “No thank you,” he said, smiling. “No thank you.”
At the top of the escalator, Roger Clinton was being hustled through the hall, with a phalanx of Secret Service agents who actually made him look a bit like the rock star he longs to be.
James Carville poked his freshly shaved head out of the makeup room and took a good long look at the NBC News buffet. The Transom asked if Hollywood was going to go through withdrawal after the departure of his old boss.
“Naaah,” Mr. Carville drawled. I mean, Ronald Reagan came from Hollywood. But, we’re changing goverments here.” Mr. Carville took three potato chips, shoved them in his mouth, and continued talking. “I got to deal with the fact that I’m not going to be a presidential advisor,” he said, spewing crumbs. “Everybody’s got to deal with something. I wouldn’t worry about Hollywood …. [Clinton] seems to like movies you know, better than the Vice President does. But people out here who are politically active continue to be … and, ah, you know, Jack Valenti – he’ll do his job.”
Nearby, a woman walked up to actor Richard Dreyfuss and asked him how his mother was doing. “Not great,” he said. There was dead silence between them, and then, without another word, the woman slipped away, leaving Mr. Dreyfuss to answer our question.
“I would argue that in Hollywood there’s a greater love
affair for Clinton than there was even for Reagan. But, but, I don’t think Hollywood has to wake up to that. It’s a historical fact,” he said. “As to the relationship between Hollywood and Gore, let’s find out. Let’s find out. Let’s listen to him Thurday night.”
And what about Mr. Lieberman. The consensus at the convention was that Mr. Gore’s running mate was great for Jews but bad for Hollywood.
“Well if you’re dealing with that one issue, I’d say that’s not incorrect,” Mr. Dreyfuss said. “But I’d also ask you to look at this. Of all the institutions in America now, the Hollywood creative community is the most altruistic -the one that
gives more to more issues, more causes, more charities, more ideas, more things in need that are not directly in their own benefit than any institution in America. They’re not just looking for what is their home-court advantage.”
Mr. Dreyfuss posted himself at the top of the escalator where he observed the arrival of Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, who was accompanied by Rhode Island Congressman Patrick Kennedy. “Senator,” said Mr. Dreyfuss, thrusting out his hand and beaming like an Eagle Scout, “Keep up the good work!” .
Next, Andrew Cuomo hustled through. “Hollywood may have a deeper relationship with Clinton now, but he’s also
been there for eight years,” he said. “Give them 8 years with Gore you’ll be in the same place.” Mr. Cuomo continued gladhanding his way through the hall. “I mean, Bill Clinton was from Arkansas,” he said. “He didn’t come in as a friend to
Hollywood. There wasn’t a lot of Hollywood in Arkansas. It was a relationship that developed. And you’ll see the same thing with Al Gore.”
Ten minutes before Hillary Clinton’s speech, Gregg Bello, an actor who appeared in Jakob the Liar and The Thomas Crown Affair , was standing with some Creative Coalition people in the hall as a scowling Maria Shriver ran by with her NBC crew. “Some people are actually working,” Mr. Bello said.
Then he added: “I’m excited about one thing. I’m excited about the unknown. I’m looking to be impressed. And I’m hoping that this guy” – he meant Mr. Gore – and Lieberman come in on Thursday morning and inspire people. Otherwise, it’s not going to be a fun thing, and it’s going to be tough to rally.”
Two minutes before Ms. Clinton, Paul Begala was running upstairs to the second level of the skybox suites. He was shoving popcorn in his mouth as he talked. He said that Mr. Clinton was a movie fanatic and that his favorite was High Noon, starring Gary Cooper. “He liked the ambivalence that underlaid the courage that Cooper showed,” Mr. Begala said. “It wasn’t just marching out there and killing a bunch of people.”
Was Mr. Gore a movie fanatic too?
“No I don’t think so,” Mr. Begala said. “Al Gore went bananas when he met [physicist] Stephen Hawking, though. He about fell over. Clinton likes meeting Steven Hawking too. He’s just very comfortable with Nobel Prize-winning physicists, AND with the guys who made My Dog Skip , you know? He’s got a lot of range. He blooms where he’s planted. He’s the smartest person I’ve ever known.”
And like Hollywood’s geniuses, Mr. Clinton was best at rewriting the past. For the great achievement of his speech Monday was not to set the table for Al Gore, not to heat up Hollywood for his successor, but to do what he so very much wants to do: rewrite the past. He talked about turning the economy and the country around. He put himself at the end of a long chain of Truman, Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Lyndon B. Johnson. He talked about his presidency being “a joy, an honor, and a privilege,” just what he said about it at the depth of the White House sex scandal, which he alluded to not at all except in the melodramatically accurate statement about his own birth: “Fifty-four years ago this week, I was born in a summer storm to a young widow in a small southern town.”
And like an actor in a Robert Altman movie, he improvised upon the text, having a blast, meeting Los Angeles half-way in creating the kind of pleasure that can only happen here, where history is only made to be sold. He inflated with more and more self-confidence. He made love to the microphone, looking like he might suddenly explode with self-inflated happy gas, leaving only a huge, exultant YEEE-HAH!!! WA-HOOO!!! in his wake.
And then, as efficently as Frankie Avalon in a late-night ad for some Time-Life rock ‘n roll retrospective of the 50′s, he began amassing his own greatest hits: “Keep putting people first. Keep building those bridges. And don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.” The room rocked. No one wept. But the nitrous oxide of Clinton giddiness filled the air of the Staples Center, and crazy light rock dancing filled the room.
Outside, as he spoke, sweaty kids from the Rage Against The Machine concert were being billy-clubbed and pelted with rubber bullets, even as Bill Clinton reminded the convention that long, long ago, in the past he was retelling, “there were riots in the streets.” And even as he said it, there were riots in the streets outside the Staples Center. Not big riots, but hundreds of police, and barbed wire, and mounted troops, even while Cesar Chavez and Eleanor Roosevelt and Robert Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt and Martin Luther King stared down from a giant Apple Computer ad painted on the side of a dilapidated downtown warehouse.