The Magazine

Lott, Bellesiles, and more.

Dec 23, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 15
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"Celebrities" Aren't What They Used To Be

OVER THE YEARS, liberals of our acquaintance have sometimes snickered about conservatives' gaping celebrity deficit. Indeed, The Scrapbook would be the first to admit that when Republicans go sniffing after an endorsement from Hollywood, they have few names on their call sheet: There's Charlton Heston, Kennedy-conservative Arnold Schwarzenegger, maybe Shannen Doherty, who led the pledge at the 1992 GOP convention, and even we'd be embarrassed to mention the names lower on the list.

What irks us is the inference that one's ideas are bankrupt because some room-temperature-IQ'd celebrity isn't espousing them. Or at least it did, until now. This week, The Scrapbook had occasion to teleconference into an anti-Bush celebrity press conference (bearing the cumbersome title "Win Without War to Resist Bush Preemption of Peace Process"). Brought to us by Fenton Communications, the same PR people who flacked for the Sandinistas, the roster was less a Who's Who than a Who's That? "100 Celebrities to Speak Out," Fenton had promised. Clearly, though, the term "celebrity" was being used remarkably loosely.

Sure, some of the 100 or so names attached to the antiwar letter are recognizable, A-list signatories: Anjelica Huston, Matt Damon, Kim Basinger, and Martin Sheen (the last of whom shouldn't count, since he signs everything). But most of the others are now on the infomercial circuit--if they're lucky. Are those who oppose war with Iraq really supposed to be emboldened because Rene Auberjonois (Clayton from "Benson") or Ken Howard (Coach Reeves from "The White Shadow") says they should be?

Among actual attendees, the obscurity problem was even worse. Yes, Wendie Malick, star of "Just Shoot Me," is close to A-listish, but she had to leave almost immediately since, as one organizer said, "she has to go to work." That didn't seem to be a problem for too many of the others. The cavalcade of "stars" included a former regular from the now-cancelled "Coach," the wife of "The Practice's" Dylan McDermott (he couldn't make it), and former "Hill Street Blues" star Barbara Bosson, who's been off the air so long that even an organizer had to ask about her credits.

Co-organized by Robert Greenwald, perhaps best known as director of the 1984 television movie "The Burning Bed," and Mike Farrell, who knows all about the horrors of war from his stint as B.J. Hunnicut on "M*A*S*H," the celebrity press conference was unusually self-effacing. "We are not experts in this field," Greenwald warned, perhaps superfluously.

Consider the statement of David Clennon (Miles Drentell on "thirtysomething," a popular show fifteensomething years ago), which read, almost in its entirety: "We have achieved our objective; we do not need to go to war. The war is over, and we have won. Thank you." Or Ed Begley Jr., who is best remembered--on the rare occasions he is remembered--for playing Dr. Ehrlich on "St. Elsewhere," explaining that we "need to win the war on terrorism," and that the best way to curtail Saddam would be to follow Begley's example of driving electric vehicles.

Any antiwar types hoping for an infusion of celebrity energy had to have been disappointed. "Looking at it closely and going over and over it," said Greenwald, "one comes back to the same feeling that there aren't any ideal solutions." Perhaps, in the interest of generating some, they could go a little deeper into the B-list celebrity bench. The Scrapbook suggests Sharon Claridge, who played the unseen dispatcher on "Adam-12." She has an excellent speaking voice, and if she's still alive, she could probably use the work.

Strom Thurmond, the Man and the Myth

TRENT LOTT said a lot of unconvincing things last week, but this one, in his interview with Sean Hannity, takes the cake:

"When I think of Strom Thurmond, I'm talking about defense issues. If you look back at that time, which was 1948, defense was a big issue. We were coming out of the war, of course, but we also were dealing with communism."

What do you mean "we," white man? For Thurmond's Dixiecrats, the Cold War that mattered was the one they were fighting with their fellow Democrats, and while they agreed that there was a totalitarian threat, they thought its headquarters was in Washington.

The Scrapbook dusted off a copy of the "declaration of principles" from the States' Rights convention in Birmingham, and--get this--there's not a word in it about defense policy. Here, though, is its warning about totalitarianism:

The 1948 Democratic convention, the Dixiecrats complained, had "called for a civil-rights law that would eliminate segregation of every kind from all American life, prohibit all forms of discrimination in private employment, in public and private instruction and administration and treatment of students; in the operation of public and private health facilities; in all transportation, and require equal access to all places of public accommodation for persons of all races, colors, creeds and national origin.

"This infamous and iniquitous program calls for the reorganization of the civil rights section of the Department of Justice with a substantial increase in a bureaucratic staff to be devoted exclusively to the enforcement of the civil rights program; the establishment within the FBI of a special unit of investigators and a police state in a totalitarian, centralized, bureaucratic government.

"This convention hypocritically denounced totalitarianism abroad but unblushingly proposed and approved it at home. This convention would strengthen the grip of a police state upon a liberty-loving people by the imposition of penalties upon local public officers who failed or refused to act in accordance with its ideas in suppressing mob violence."

To translate: The liberty to lynch was under attack, and the Dixiecrats were riding to the defense. So okay, maybe there was a "defense issue" in their platform, after all.

Shot Down

MICHAEL BELLESILES is no longer the winner of the prestigious Bancroft prize. After insisting that accusations of fraud in his work were a garden-variety scholarly dispute, Columbia University has finally rescinded the award given to Bellesiles for his now discredited 2000 book, "Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture." What's more, Columbia is asking for the return of the $4,000 in prize money.

"Arming America," for the uninitiated, argued that before the Civil War, Americans didn't really own many guns, and if they did, the guns were probably broken, and if the guns weren't broken, the owners probably didn't know how to use them anyway. By implication, the idea that firearms were widely owned in early America was a concoction of modern day gun-rights ideologues. The problem with this argument was that Bellesiles lacked evidence. He misrepresented sources, distorted data, and cited historical documents that no one could prove existed. After his employer, Emory University, investigated the claims against him, Bellesiles resigned his tenured professorship.

The retraction of the Bancroft brings to a close the last interesting controversy of the Bellesiles affair. Although some of the Bancroft jurors had been loath to reconsider their decision (how do you like the book now, Arthur Goren, Jan Ellen Lewis, and Mary P. Ryan?), this latest decision puts to rest any doubts about the academic consensus on whether "Arming America" ever deserved to be called "a myth-busting tour de force" or a "classic work of significant scholarship with inescapable policy implications," as Bellesiles's now much-embarrassed champions once claimed.