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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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,