The Magazine

The Nobel-Hollywood Complex Implodes

Polanski, Letterman, and the Norwegians make conservatives' day

Oct 26, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 06 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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Three times in the past several weeks, fortune has seemed to beam on conservatives, in unexpected and unprompted ways. Not that they've won much, but their tormentors keep losing. Three days in fall 2009 damaged or neutralized three liberal institutions, whose powers have now been curtailed.

Break number one came on September 26, when Roman Polanski, on his way to collect a lifetime achievement award from the Zurich Film Festival, was intercepted by Swiss police and tossed into prison, pending extradition to the United States, which he had fled 30 years earlier to avoid a jail sentence for drugging and raping a girl of 13 (a crime he had pleaded down to unlawful sex with a minor). This outrage--the arrest, not the rape--stunned the global artistic community, which quickly drew up a petition in protest, signed by la crème de la crème of stage and screen, including Salman Rushdie, Mike Nichols (Mr. Diane Sawyer), Martin Scorsese, Isabelle Huppert, Diane von Furstenberg (Mrs. Barry Diller), and Woody Allen, famous for having married his former flame's daughter, whom he seduced when she was still in her teens. The excuses were many, and flew very fast. Whoopi Goldberg exonerated the French-Polish director on the grounds that it wasn't "rape-rape" and thus not important. French sage Bernard-Henri Lévy, who organized a petition of support, called it a "youthful indiscretion" (Polanski was 43 at the time). Debra Winger, the Zurich festival's president, called the arrest "philistine collusion" with puritanical America and typical of the persecutions that beset artists everywhere.

In defending their friend, the points made by his allies amounted to these: (1) The crime wasn't that bad; (2) it was bad, but it was so long ago that it no longer mattered; (3) Polanski had suffered already: Family members had died in concentration camps, and his wife and unborn child were murdered; and (4) it might have mattered if it had been done by a lesser creative talent, but middle-class standards of law and of morals do not apply to artistes such as he. Their attitude was prefigured by Tom Shales of the Washington Post in a sympathetic June 9, 2008, review of a sympathetic HBO documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired: "Polanski belongs to a rarefied subculture: celebrities hounded by the state."

In the same vein Harvey Weinstein, the Miramax mogul, said Polanski deserved to be cleared of all charges, as he so deeply cared for "art and its place in the world." But on a sliding scale (assuming one accepts this warped logic), if King Lear and the Sistine Chapel ceiling should get their creators cleared of grand larceny, filming Frantic and China-town might be worth leniency on a parking infraction. And if making Ghost (Whoopi Goldberg) and Legal Eagles (Debra Winger), or inventing the wrap dress (Diane von Furstenberg) conveys moral authority, so does teaching an art class, writing a legal brief, and mopping floors. But not to worry, this crowd does have morals, if it does says so itself. "Hollywood has the best moral compass, because it has compassion," said Weinstein, which means that it sometimes writes checks to a really posh charity, while mere human beings are often disposable. Katha Pollitt, speaking for the non-pedophile left at the Nation, pronounced herself enraged at "superstars who go on and on about human dignity and human rights [and] don't see what Polanski did as rape, or don't care." She wasn't alone. "The brutalization of one young girl," said the Washington Post's Eugene Robinson "leaves Hollywood's big heart awfully cold." It's a good sign when not all on the left buy into this sort of rubbish.

The second break came on the night of October l. David Letterman started off his opening monologue not with some straying governor's problem, but with a problem much closer to home. As he told his audience (which laughed and clapped, as it thought he was joking), he had played around with a great many women who were in his employ, and a CBS news producer had tried to extort him, threatening to go public with numerous scandals unless paid $2 million. Among the details which surfaced quite quickly: Dave and the producer had been sharing a woman, which made this affair slightly more creepy than that of Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina, though less so than those of John Edwards and former governors Jim McGreevey of New Jersey and Eliot Spitzer of New York.

Nonetheless, Tom Shales was there again to offer solace: "One of the many sad things," he lamented, was that now Letterman would be "lumped in with other sexually misbehaving celebrities, even though he stands head and heart above most of them." Though not an artiste on the scale of Polanski, Letterman was artist enough that he should still be allowed to lampoon political figures whose transgressions were no worse than his was, not to mention being free to slime other politicians with no transgressions whatever, such as when he had called Sarah Palin "slutty" and joked that her 14-year-old daughter had been "knocked up." Palin deserved it, Shales explained, as she was a "two bit politician." It's how Letterman shows his great heart.

Later that day, Shales was called out on his own paper's website by a reader who perfectly understood the code of the celebrity class and its coat-holders like Shales: "Polanski rapes and sodomizes a drugged 13-year-old and you write a flattering article that falsely understates his crime," said the reader. "Letterman makes a joke about the statutory rape of the daughter of a conservative politician and you call the joke inartfully phrased, but otherwise fine; Letterman admits to affairs with subordinate employees and you state it's alright." Shales denied all the charges, as he tried to shift the blame to Polanski's young victim. "In Hollywood I am not sure a 13-year-old is really a 13-year-old," he said, as clueless as Weinstein and Winger. A 13-year-old here, and a 14-year-old there, what could be the problem? "No wonder Middle America hates them," Pollitt wrote of Polanski's defenders. "The widespread support for Polanski shows the liberal cultural elite at its preening fatuous worst."

Letterman will doubtless survive as a comic (and now as a punchline for other comedians), and Polanski's defenders will not lose jobs or money, but this is just part of the tale. Hollywood and the late-night comedians have been sizable assets for Democrats, and their clout is now diminished. Letterman was not just an entertainer, but a political force, who judged politicians, pressed them on issues, and controlled their access to a fairly large audience. Candidates launched campaigns on Letterman's program. Barack Obama went on his show a few weeks ago to try to revive his stalled health care agenda; it was political news when Letterman threw a tantrum because John McCain cancelled an appearance on his program during the financial implosion last fall. But politicians do not count creeps as their buddies, at least not in public: The McCains and Obamas will no longer seek Letterman out. He has lost his power to help--or to hurt--politicians, and lost the ability to joke about their failings without having the joke be on him. In the past year, as Howard Kurtz said, "Letterman has been more openly political, and tilted more to the left," so this is good news for the other persuasion. Sarah Palin has her revenge for the snotty remarks of last summer. Dave the comic may survive or even flourish, but Dave as a pol is kaputt.

Hollywood as a political force is hardly dead, but the Polanski affair wounded it. In particular, anyone who spoke for Polanski or signed the petition supporting him has neutralized himself as a political player, as someone who can hold, host, or perhaps even go to a fundraiser, or perhaps even stand next to a candidate without doing damage to his prospects. On October 7, Politico reported that signers of the Polanski petition gave $34,000 in 2008 to groups backing Obama, that Harvey Weinstein gave $28,500 in 2008 to the White House Victory Fund that supported Obama (and $88,000 over the years to Hillary Clinton), and that six others gave contributions totaling $15,500 to Obama. Contributions in future campaigns will receive the same scrutiny. This may be somewhat unfair, as all politicians and parties are backed by unsavory people, but guilt-by-association is a time-honored tactic, and politicians are often asked to explain their supporters. Can we say chilling effect?

In general, Hollywood and the Democrats have been welded together for years. Warren Beatty and friends bankrolled and befriended George McGovern and then Gary Hart. Debra Winger campaigned in 1988 for Dukakis, saying the elder George Bush was her "nightmare." -Hollywood fell hard for Bill and Hillary Clinton and in 2004 turned out in force for John Kerry, who picked up almost $50 million there, and was seldom without a phalanx of film stars as he stumped throughout the campaign. As the Wall Street Journal's Daniel Henninger noted,

The most talked-about party at the Democratic Convention was the one thrown by the Creative Coalition, featuring the kind of people one normally reads about at the supermarket. The most talked-about Democratic fundraiser before the convention was at Radio City Music Hall, featuring Whoopi Goldberg. .  .  . The world of celebrity and the world of the Democratic Party are now joined at the hip.

Even five years ago, this could be an embarrassment, as when Whoopi Goldberg grabbed her crotch while making a joke on the president's surname, which got her dropped as a spokesman for Slim-Fast, and let Bush mock Kerry for a statement he had issued to be read to the audience, saying that the arts community spoke for the best in the national character. Few now think that the "arts community" has any moral compass at all.

"Doing Letterman again won't help," Newsweek's Howard Fineman warned Obama on September 26, after Obama had gone on the show and failed to move poll numbers. That was the same day Polanski's arrest set off the celebrity self-immolation. Letterman--and possibly Hollywood--cannot help anyone now. "Could it be that the conservative culture warriors who portray Hollywood as a cesspool of moral bankruptcy have been right all along?" asked Eugene Robinson. If the Washington Post's most liberal columnist thinks this, so do millions of -others, and even 70 percent of the French were against Polanski. CBS has hired an investigator to look into the Letterman charges. If this and the Polanski affair lead to long, sordid -trials, matters can only get worse.

For years--even more so since 2002, when the Nobel Peace Prize committee smiled on ex-President Carter (as a slap at George Bush, it freely admitted)--conservatives have longed in vain to see the Norwegian parliamentarians exposed as a gaggle of partisans. It only got worse when the committee gave its prize in 2005 to Mohamed ElBaradei, the anti-U.S., pro-Iran U.N. arms inspector, and in 2007 to Al Gore, who had lost to Bush in 2000 in an exceedingly close and contentious election and railed against him ever since as a warmongering liar, and worse. Conservatives struggled for years but failed to gain traction with their critiques. So picture their glee on the morning of October 9 when they awoke to discover that the committee had contrived to discredit itself. In its ultimate slap at George Bush (who is no longer in office, but why should this stop them?), it had given the peace prize to Barack Obama for doing not much of anything beyond setting a new "tone."

It certainly set a new tone in the response to the Nobel committee itself. Reporters gasped when they heard the announcement. Bloggers thought they had clicked by mistake on satire sites like the Onion and Scrappleface. "This is ridiculous--embarrassing even," said Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post. "Ridiculous," echoed Mother Jones's Kevin Drum. "Folks across the spectrum are asking, 'what has he done?' " wrote Tom Bevan of Real Clear Politics, and many of the most appalled and scalding of comments would come from the left. "This is so far out of nowhere that it could be almost embarrassing," said the Guardian's Michael Tomasky. Even the Huffington Post couldn't stand it: "It is enormously premature .  .  . [and] to a certain extent cheapens the prior recipients," opined one of its contributors. Aside from the bad taste, the timing was terrible, as Obamania had started to fade in America, (his approval ratings were stuck around 50 percent), and a meme had been born that he was failing to meet expectations. The prize, as Politico noted, felt like "a breathless fan letter from the European elite."

And some in that elite weren't buying it either. "While it is OK to give school children prizes for 'effort' .  .  . statesmen should probably be held to a higher standard," wrote the Financial Times's Gideon Rachman. "It might have been wiser to hold judgment," said the Economist. At the Times of London, Michael Binyon declared that "the prize risks looking preposterous in its claims, patronizing in its intentions, and demeaning in its attempt to build up a man who has barely begun his period in office. .  .  . Rarely has an award had such an obvious political and partisan intent."

Back in America, the Los Angeles Times said that the committee's award had embarrassed Obama and diminished its own credibility. "I like Barack Obama as much as the next liberal, but this is a farce," said Peter Beinart in Tina Brown's Daily Beast. "Let's hope the Nobel Committee's decision meets with such a deafening chorus of chortles and jeers that it never does something this stupid again."

It may or may not, but it no longer matters, as it is clear that the jig is up. For decades, the peace prize committee has seemed to speak with the voice of humanity, or of the world community, or of the Almighty, but it is clear now that it speaks with the voice of five more or less insular nitwits, of great self-regard and no great distinction, too clueless and tone-deaf to sense how their choice would be seen. Like the culture elites defending Polanski and Letterman, they have no sense of irony, much less of perspective or rectitude.

If there were a Nobel Prize for shark-jumping, these people would share it: They have proved themselves more inane than their critics imagined. With friends such as these, the left hardly needs enemies. And with enemies such as these, the right may not really need friends.

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.