Celebrity and Politics Create a Potent D.C. Mix
For many people, the election of Barack Obama heralded a new era of glamour and chic for Washington, D.C. The excitement of the youthful new commander in chief seemed to inspire a new connection between the District and Hollywood, as celebrities flocked to the city for inaugural balls and later the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner.
There’s no doubt the stars have come out in droves this past year, whether it’s been to stump for a political candidate or advocate a cause close to their hearts. But a new book by filmmaker and political strategist Jason Killian Meath proves that the worlds of celebrity and politics have been colliding a lot longer than that.
“Hollywood on the Potomac— is a collection of photographs that illustrates those ties, from images of Bill Clinton greeting Will and Jada Pinkett Smith at the America’s Millennium Celebration in 1999 to Gerald Ford playing golf with comedians Jackie Gleason and Bob Hope at a charity tournament. All of the photos are black and white, even the most recent ones, which enhances the glamour rather than diminishing it.
Of all the stars featured in the book, perhaps the most appropriate is one of a young Michael Jackson with Ronald and Nancy Reagan in 1984, when the pop star received a humanitarian award for speaking out against teen drinking and driving. Meath, who was a teenager at the time of the event, recalls seeing it on television. He said that is when his interest in the Washington-Hollywood connection began.
“I remember thinking it was the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen, Michael Jackson standing there with his sequined glove talking to the president,— Meath recalled.
Given Meath’s career path — he studied filmmaking at Columbia University and later became a political strategist on George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns, among others — it’s not surprising that those two themes would collide in his first book. After all, the thought had been there for years.
“I never knew I wanted to do anything with it, but it certainly stuck there,— he said.
Meath pitched the idea to Arcadia Publishing, and he said the company signed on right away. He then worked with 11 presidential libraries and the National Archives to comb through photos for the book. He explained that when a Member of Congress leaves office, all of the photos taken during his or her tenure are given to the National Archives, but many of those end up forgotten and are never shown to the public.
“What they have must be something like the Raiders of the Lost Ark,’— Meath said.
Contrary to popular opinion, Meath said, celebrities have long embraced the “American spirit— of getting involved and taking up a cause.
“Going through this latest presidential election, people think there might be a time when celebrity might not have injected itself into policy,— he said. But he noted that there is a picture of Charlie Chaplin when the actor came to Washington to raise money for the Third Liberty Loan, which benefited U.S. troops during World War I. “If you can go all the way back to the very first film star, you can find them always having a voice in the political process,— Meath said.
“Hollywood on the Potomac— is not just a pictorial history lesson, though. The book is also filled with anecdotes that give deeper context to the images. A photo from the early 1970s shows Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger with then-Sen. Jacob Javits (R-N.Y.). Meath explains in the caption that the British band’s U.S. tour was jeopardized because of the members’ public criticism of the war in Vietnam, but Javits made sure that it happened anyway.
In keeping with the theme of presidents and pop stars, there are also three snapshots of Richard Nixon meeting Elvis Presley. Those were taken in 1970, after the “King of Rock ’n’ Roll— wrote Nixon a letter, in which he criticized hippie culture and asked that the president make him a “Federal Agent at Large.—
Athletes get a nod as well — Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton poses in her gold medal with Reagan, and baseball Hall of Famer Frank Robinson is photographed with Bush.
A chapter titled “Actors to Activists— showcases performers who use their celebrity status for a good cause: Angelina Jolie working with Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), Joan Baez and Bob Dylan performing at the civil rights March on Washington in 1963, and Christopher Reeve meeting with Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton to push for spinal cord research.
Meath noted the complex relationship between Hollywood’s most notable faces and their Washington counterparts. After all, movie stars and musicians often have plenty of money to contribute to a campaign, but it’s likely they want some influence in return. The author used Bill Clinton and Barbra Streisand as an example. The actress and singer donated heavily to the former president’s campaign efforts, and Meath recalled Clinton’s former communications director George Stephanopoulos admitting that she had some pull.
“He said the president certainly listens to what she says, and I think that might be true of a lot of presidents and their close celebrity friends,— Meath said.
Of course, there are potential drawbacks.
“All politicians need to be a little careful of overexposure being with any celebrity,— Meath said. Famous supporters “end up saying something about the country and they end up saying something about the individual presidents.—
But political strategy aside, “Hollywood on the Potomac— is a fun look at some of the most beautiful — and influential — people of the past several decades. And it’s a good history lesson for those who think Washington didn’t really know glamour until last November.